About the signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancer symptoms depend on:

  • where in the head and neck the cancer started
  • if it has spread anywhere nearby, such as the lymph nodes in the neck.

If you have certain symptoms, your dentist or GP should refer you to see a specialist within 2 weeks. This is called an urgent referral. These symptoms include:

  • an ulcer anywhere in the mouth area (including the tongue) lasting for more than 3 weeks
  • a red patch (erythroplakia) or red and white patch (erythroleukoplakia) anywhere inside the mouth
  • a white patch on its own (leukoplakia) anywhere inside the mouth
  • a lump in the neck that does not go away after 2 to 3 weeks
  • a lump on the lip or anywhere inside the mouth that does not go away
  • a sore tongue that is not getting better
  • throat pain, persistent hoarseness and difficulty swallowing that is not improving.

Specific types of head and neck cancer and symptoms

This page covers the common signs and symptoms for all head and neck cancers. We have information about specific symptoms of the following types of head and neck cancers:

Any of the symptoms here can be caused by conditions other than cancer but it is important to have them checked by your GP or dentist, especially if they do not go away or are getting worse.

Symptoms of head and neck cancer can include one or more of the symptoms listed below.

Pain or bleeding

Pain or bleeding could include:

  • discomfort or pain, usually in the mouth
  • bleeding in the mouth or nosebleeds
  • a sore throat or earache that does not get better
  • pain in the cheek or any part of your face
  • pain behind the nose or in the upper teeth.


You may have swelling:

  • in the upper neck, caused by a swollen lymph node
  • in front of or behind the ear, or under the jawbone
  • in the cheek
  • around the eyes.

Breathing problems

You might notice that you:

  • have a blocked nose on one side that does not clear
  • are breathing more loudly than usual.

Bad breath (halitosis)

If you have bad breath that does not improve with better oral hygiene, speak to your doctor.

Changes to eating, speaking and hearing

These changes could be:

  • difficulty or pain with chewing, swallowing or speaking
  • loose teeth for no obvious reason, or dentures that do not fit well anymore
  • changes in your speech
  • numbness of the cheek, upper lip, upper teeth or side of the nose
  • drooping on one side of the face or difficulty opening your mouth
  • changes in your hearing.

Losing weight

If you are losing weight for no obvious reason, speak to your doctor.

Lumps in the neck

If a cancer in the mouth or throat spreads from where it started, the first place it usually spreads to is the lymph nodes in the neck. This might cause a painless lump in the neck.

Swollen lymph nodes are more likely to be caused by an infection than cancer.

If a lump on your neck does not go away after 2 to 3 weeks, your GP should refer you to a specialist doctor.

Or, they may refer you to a one-stop neck lump clinic, where they can do all the tests to diagnose the cause of your symptoms.

We understand that showing any symptoms of what could be cancer is worrying. The most important thing is to speak to your GP as soon as possible. We're also here if you need someone to talk to. You can:

Get this information in another language or format

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We have information about cancer symptoms in over 16 languages, and in other formats including audiobooks, and easy read.

If we don't have what you are looking for, you can ask for information to be translated for free or provided in a format to suit you. Email us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk or call us on 0808 808 00 00.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our head and neck cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    Machiels J.-P, Leemans C. R. et al. Squamous cell carcinoma of the oral cavity, larynx, oropharynx and hypopharynx. EHNS- ESMO-ESTRO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Annals of Oncology, 2020. Volume 31, Issue 11, Pages 1462-1475.

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Cancer of the upper aerodigestive tract: assessment and management in people aged 16 and over. NICE guideline NG36 2016 (updated 2018). 

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Chris Alcock, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 March 2022
Next review: 01 March 2025
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.