Signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer can vary, and often be subtle.

signs and symptoms hnc insta

If symptoms persist for more than THREE weeks please see your GP or in the case of unusual patches or ulcers in your mouth consult your dentist without delay.

People with head and neck cancer often experience the following symptoms or signs. Sometimes, people with head and neck cancer do not have any of these changes. Or, the cause of a symptom may be a different medical condition that is not cancer.

  • Swelling or a sore in the mouth that does not heal; this is the most common symptom
  • Red or white patch in the mouth
  • Lump, bump, or mass in the head or neck area, with or without pain
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Foul smelling breath
  • Hoarseness or change in voice
  • Nasal obstruction or persistent nasal congestion
  • Frequent nose bleeds and/or unusual nasal discharge
  • Difficulty breathing and/or noisy breathing
  • Double vision
  • Persistent ear pain
  • Numbness or weakness of a body part in the head and neck region
  • Pain or difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving the jaw or tongue
  • Pain and/or swelling around the eyes
  • Jaw pain
  • blocked nose on one side
  • Pain and/or swelling around the cheek
  • Pain and/or swelling in front or behind the ear or under the jawbone
  • Painless neck lumps.  If cancer spreads then the first place it will usually spread is to the lymph nodes in the neck which may show as painless neck lump(s). These lumps may simply be enlarged lymph nodes but if they do not clear within two weeks please see your GP without delay
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Face drooping on one side (facial palsy)
  • Numbness of the cheek, upper lip, upper teeth or side of the nose

Risk Factors


Alcohol and tobacco use

Alcohol and tobacco use (including tobacco and betel nut chewing) are the two most important risk factors for head and neck cancers, particularly cancers of the oral cavity, oropharynx, hypopharynx, and larynx.

Tobacco use is the single largest risk factor in the development of head and neck cancer, and stopping tobacco consumption is the most important thing a person can do to reduce their risk, even for those who have been heavy smokers for years. 85% of head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco use. An increased amount of tobacco used decreases the chance of recovery. You don’t have to be a smoker for tobacco to affect your chances of developing the disease; secondhand smoking is also a risk factor for developing head and neck cancer.

Regular consumption of alcohol, particularly binges, raise the risk of developing cancer in the mouth, pharynx, larynx, and oesophagus. Tobacco and alcohol have a cumulative and thus using them together increases risk substantially more.

73% of laryngeal (voicebox) cancer cases and 46% of oral cancers could be prevented with less exposure to alcohol and tobacco use (Source CRUK).

HPV virus

Human papillomavirus (HPV), is a very common virus that will infect the majority of people at some point in their life. It is passed through skin-to-skin contact, and although it does not cause problems in most people, it can cause genital warts or cancer.

The HPV virus is a sexually transmitted infection and the number of lifetime sexual partners is an important risk factor for the development of HPV-associated head and neck squamous cell carcinoma.

Research has shown that:

  • The odds of HPV-positive head and neck cancer doubled in individuals who reported between one and five lifetime oral sexual partners.
  • The risk increased five-fold in those patients with six or more oral sexual partners compared with those who have not had oral sex.

There are more than 100 different types of HPV, many of which affect the mouth, throat or genital area. They are very easy to catch and since HPV has no symptoms, you may not know if you have it.

It is important to be aware that you do not need to have penetrative sex to catch HPV. It can be passed from any skin-to-skin contact of the genital area, by vaginal, anal, or oral sex, or sharing sex toys.

Patients with HPV-related head and neck cancer are generally younger, in good health, and may not have a typical history of tobacco and/or alcohol abuse.  It is also more prevalent in men.

Although it is not possible to fully protect yourself against HPV, there are things that you can do to reduce your risk of infection. Condoms do help protect against HPV, but since they do not cover all skin around the genitals, wearing one does not mean that you are fully protected. The HPV vaccine does protect against the strains of HPV that cause the most genital warts and cancer, as well as some other cancers, however it does not protect against all types of HPV.

It is important to get checked for HPV. HPV testing is part of cervical screening, which is offered to all women aged 25 to 64, and strongly advised since it helps protect against cervical cancer. There is no blood test for HPV, instead a small sample of cells is taken from the cervix and tested for HPV. Men at a higher risk of developing anal cancer may be offered anal screening by some sexual health clinics.

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Symptoms of head and neck cancer can be subtle - seek professional advice if they persist after THREE weeks

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Oracle Cancer Trust is a registered charity in England and Wales (1142037). A company limited by guarantee. Registered company in England and Wales (7125497). Registered address: 80 Coombe Road, New Malden KT3 4QS