Head and neck cancer is a term used to define cancer that develops in the mouth, throat, nose, salivary glands, oral cancers or other areas of the head and neck. Know more about the symptoms and risk factors of head and neck cancer – time to take action.
Head & Neck Cancer
Head and neck cancer are cancers that usually begin in the squamous cells that line the moist, mucosal surfaces inside the head and neck – for example, inside the mouth, the nose, and the throat.
Often referred to as the squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck, head and neck cancers can also begin in the salivary gland, but it is uncommon.
Head and neck cancers are categorised according to the region they begin, such as:
- Oral Cavity – Includes the lips, the front two-thirds of the tongue, the gums, the lining inside the cheeks and lips, the floor of the mouth under the tongue, the hard palate, and the small area of the gum behind the wisdom teeth.
- Pharynx: The pharynx (throat) is a hollow tube about 5 inches long that starts behind the nose and leads to the oesophagus. It has three parts: the nasopharynx(the upper part of the pharynx, behind the nose); the oropharynx (the middle part of the pharynx, including the soft palate [the back of the mouth], the base of the tongue, and the tonsils); the hypopharynx (the lower part of the pharynx).
- Larynx: The larynx, also called the voicebox, is a short passageway formed by cartilage just below the pharynx in the neck. The larynx contains the vocal cords. It also has a small piece of tissue called the epiglottis, which moves to cover the larynx to prevent food from entering the air passages.
- Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity: The paranasal sinuses are small hollow spaces in the bones of the head surrounding the nose. The nasal cavity is the open space inside the nose.
- Salivary glands: The major salivary glands are on the floor of the mouth and near the jawbone. The salivary glands produce saliva.
Alcohol and tobacco use are two important risk factors for head and neck cancer. 75% of head and neck cancers are caused by tobacco and alcohol use.
Infection caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), especially HPV type 16, is a risk factor for some types of head and neck cancers.
Other risk factors include:
- Preserved or salted foods – Consumption of preserved and salted foods is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer
- Oral health – Poor oral hygiene may be a weak risk factor for cancers of the oral cavity.
- Occupational exposure – Certain industrial exposures such as asbestos, synthetic fibres, wood dust may lead to certain types of cancers.
- Radiation exposure – Radiation to the head and neck is a risk factor for cancer of the salivary glands.
Symptoms may include a lump or a sore that does not heal, persistent sore throat, difficulty swallowing, change or hoarseness in the voice.
Other symptoms may include:
- A white or red patch on the gums, the tongue, or the lining of the mouth. Swelling of the jaw and unusual bleeding in the oral cavity.
- Trouble breathing or speaking, pain when swallowing, pain in the neck, and throat that does not go away. Symptoms relating to the pharynx may also include frequent headaches, pain, or ringing in the ears.
- Pain when swallowing or ear pain are symptoms commonly associated with the larynx.
- Symptoms in the paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity include sinuses that are blocked and do not clear. A chronic sinus infection that does not respond to treatment with antibiotics, bleeding through the nose, frequent headaches, swelling, or other trouble with the eyes.
- Swelling under the chin or around the jawbone, numbness or paralysis of the muscles, pain in the face, chin, or neck that does not go away are possible symptoms of salivary glands
Head and Neck Cancers – National Cancer Institute. (2017, March 9). Retrieved from National Cancer Institute:
Dr. Ahmad, A. R. (2015, August 13). Head & Neck Cancer – PORTAL MyHEALTH. Retrieved from MyHealth:
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