Signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer

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

Mouth cancers (oral cancers)

The two most common symptoms are:

  • a lump and/or ulcer in the mouth that doesn’t heal
  • discomfort or pain in the mouth that doesn’t go away.

Other symptoms include:

  • a white or red patch in the mouth that doesn’t go away
  • difficulty or pain with chewing, swallowing or speaking
  • bleeding in the mouth
  • loose teeth for no obvious reason or badly fitting dentures
  • a lot of weight loss over a short time
  • bad breath (halitosis)
  • swelling in the neck caused by an enlarged lymph node
  • earache.

Throat cancers

One of the first symptoms of a throat cancer is often a painless swelling or lump in the upper neck. Other symptoms may include any of the following:

Nasopharyngeal cancers

  • headache
  • a blocked nose
  • nosebleeds
  • changes in hearing or ringing in the ears (tinnitus).

Oropharyngeal cancers

  • a sore throat or earache that doesn’t get better
  • difficulty swallowing
  • losing weight
  • noisy breathing
  • changes in your speech
  • bad breath (halitosis).

Cancer of the sinuses

The symptoms can vary depending on which sinuses are affected. The most common symptoms include:

  • loose teeth for no obvious reason or badly fitting dentures
  • swelling in the cheek
  • pain in the cheek
  • a blocked nose that does not clear
  • pain behind the nose or in the upper teeth
  • swelling around the eyes.

Other symptoms may include:

  • numbness of the cheek, upper lip, upper teeth or side of the nose
  • nosebleeds
  • headaches.

Cancer of the salivary glands

The most common symptoms include:

  • a swelling in front of or behind the ear, or under the jawbone
  • pain in part of your face
  • difficulty swallowing
  • drooping on one side of the face (facial palsy).

Although these symptoms can be caused by conditions other than cancer, it’s important to have them checked by your GP or dentist, particularly if they continue.

Lumps in the neck

If a cancer in the mouth or throat spreads from where it started, the first place it will usually spread to are the lymph nodes in the neck. Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped glands that are part of the lymphatic system.

The cancer may begin to grow in the lymph nodes. This can show up as a painless lump in the neck.

Enlarged lymph nodes are much more likely to be due to an infection than cancer. But if you have a lump on your neck that hasn’t gone away within 3–6 weeks, it should be looked at by a specialist doctor.

For information about long-term and late effects, read our section on late effects of head and neck cancer treatment.

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.