Head and Neck Cancer - Symptoms & Causes

What is head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancers refer to those that begin in the throat, voice box, nose, sinuses and mouth. Cancers of the brain, eye, oesophagus and thyroid are classified differently despite their location.

Head and neck cancers usually form in the squamous cells that line the mucosal surfaces. They occur more frequently in men and are more likely to be diagnosed in those above 50 years of age.

Types of head and neck cancer:

  • Laryngeal cancer forms in the larynx, commonly known as the voice box
  • Throat cancer (oropharyngeal/hypopharyngeal)
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer forms in the nasopharynx, the air passageway located at the upper part of the throat, behind the nose
  • Nasal cancers begin in the nasal cavity, the space just behind the nose where air passes on its way to the throat
  • Oral cancer may form anywhere in the oral cavity, which includes the lips, gums, cheek lining, floor of the mouth and tongue
  • Salivary gland cancer affects the salivary glands that produce saliva. The major glands are located behind and beneath the jaw and in the floor of the mouth. Minor glands are in the mouth and throat lining.

What are the symptoms of head and neck cancer?

Symptoms will vary based on where the cancer is located:

  • Laryngeal cancer usually causes persistent hoarseness and less commonly, pain. Large tumours can cause difficult in breathing or swallowing.
  • Nasal cancers may lead to persistently blocked sinuses, chronic sinus infections that do not clear with treatment, bleeding through the nose, frequent headaches, pain or swelling around the eyes, pain in the teeth, and problems with dentures.
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer can cause various symptoms, with the most common being blood-stained phlegm or nasal discharge, neck swelling spread to the lymph nodes, and blocked or ringing ear. Large tumours may cause difficulty in breathing or swallowing.
  • Oral cancer may cause sores on the gums, tongue or lining of the mouth that do not heal, a lump or swelling that causes problems with dentures, and pain or unusual bleeding.
  • Salivary gland cancer can cause swelling under the chin or around the jawbone, pain in the face, chin or neck, or weakness of facial muscles on one side.

As with most cancers, early detection and treatment improves your chance of achieving a cure, so don’t ignore the warning signs and see a doctor for advice if you notice any of the symptoms above.

What causes head and neck cancer?

There are various known factors which increase the risk of developing head and neck cancer. Understanding them may help you lower your risk or undergo appropriate screening.

What are the risk factors for head and neck cancer?

The risk factors may differ based on the type of head and neck cancer. Some common ones are listed below:

  • For nasal cancers, exposure to wood dust, asbestos and other chemicals are common risk factors.
  • For nasopharyngeal cancer, the main risk factors are the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and family history.
  • For pharyngeal cancer, the human papillomavirus (HPV) is another risk factor.
  • For oral cavity, pharyngeal and laryngeal cancers, alcohol and tobacco are the main risk factors.
  • For salivary cancer, there is no specific risk factor.

Radiation generally increases the risk of cancer for all head and neck cancers, especially for thyroid cancer.

Head and neck cancer may affect a person’s appearance or their ability to chew, talk and swallow. In these circumstances, it may be necessary for patients to undergo reconstructive surgery or speech therapy after the tumour has been removed.

How do you prevent head and neck cancer?

You can make adjustments in your lifestyle to reduce your risk:

  • Stop using tobacco products
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Use sunscreen regularly, including a lip balm that offers sun protection
  • Protect yourself from HPV infection with an appropriate vaccine and by limiting sexual partners
  • Maintain good oral hygiene, including proper care of dentures, which should be removed and cleaned daily to prevent trapping food and other substances
This page has been reviewed by our medical content reviewers.

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