Signs and symptoms of head and neck cancers

The symptoms depend on where the cancer is in the head or neck.

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

Symptoms of head and neck cancer may include one or more of the following:

Pain

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

Swelling

  • swelling in front of or behind the ear, or under the jawbone
  • swelling in the upper neck caused by an enlarged lymph node (gland)
  • swelling in the cheek
  • swelling around the eyes.

Breathing problems

  • a blocked nose that does not clear
  • breathing more loudly than usual.

Bleeding

  • bleeding in the mouth
  • nosebleeds.

Changes to eating and speaking

  • 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.

Other symptoms

  • a lump or ulcer, or both, in the mouth that does not heal
  • a white (leukoplakia) or red (erythroplakia) patch in the mouth that does not go away
  • changes in hearing
  • unexplained weight loss
  • bad breath (halitosis).

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. Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped glands that are part of the lymphatic system.

If cancer begins to grow in the lymph nodes, it might show up as a painless lump in the neck.

Enlarged lymph nodes are much more likely to be caused by an infection than cancer. But if you have a lump on your neck that does not go away after 2 to 3 weeks, a specialist doctor should look at it. Talk to your GP about it. They can refer you to a specialist.

Back to Understanding head and neck cancers

What is cancer?

There are more than 200 different kinds of cancer, each with its own name and treatment.

Why do cancers come back?

Sometimes, tiny cancer cells are left behind after cancer treatment. These can divide to form a new tumour.