Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer: Symptoms and Signs

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 02/2021

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about body changes and other things that can signal a problem that may need medical care. Use the menu to see other pages.

People with oral or oropharyngeal cancer may experience the following symptoms or signs. A symptom is something that only the person experiencing it can identify and describe, such as fatigue, nausea, or pain. A sign is something that other people can identify and measure, such as a fever, rash, or an elevated pulse. Together, signs and symptoms can help describe a medical problem. Sometimes, people with oral or oropharyngeal cancer do not have any of the signs and symptoms described below. Or, the cause of a symptom or sign may be a medical condition that is not cancer. Often, a dentist is the first person to find oral or oropharyngeal cancer during a routine examination.

  • The most common symptom is a sore in the mouth or on the lip that does not heal

  • Red or white patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth

  • Lump on the lip, mouth, neck, or throat or a feeling of thickening in the cheek

  • Persistent sore throat or feeling that something is caught in the throat

  • Hoarseness or change in voice

  • Numbness of the mouth or tongue

  • Pain or bleeding in the mouth

  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving the jaws or tongue

  • Ear and/or jaw pain

  • Chronic bad breath

  • Changes in speech

  • Loosening of teeth or toothache

  • Dentures that no longer fit

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Fatigue

  • During later stages of the disease, people may experience a loss of appetite

If you are concerned about any changes you experience, please talk with your doctor and/or dentist as soon as possible. Your doctor will ask how long and how often you’ve been experiencing the symptom(s), in addition to other questions. This is to help figure out the cause of the problem, called a diagnosis.

If cancer is diagnosed, relieving symptoms remains an important part of cancer care and treatment. This may be called palliative care or supportive care. It is often started soon after diagnosis and continued throughout treatment. Be sure to talk with your health care team about the symptoms you experience, including any new symptoms or a change in symptoms.

The next section in this guide is Diagnosis. It explains what tests may be needed to learn more about the cause of the symptoms. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.