What Is Head and Neck Cancer?

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Head and neck cancers are cancers that originate in the head or neck region. This group does not include thyroid or skin cancers. However, it does include some cancers of the mouth, nose, and throat, like laryngeal cancer or tumors in your nasal sinuses.

Because there are quite a few kinds, there also are different causes and symptoms as well as treatments. This article offers a general look at some of these common head and neck cancers, including those linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Patient discussing neck problems with doctor
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Symptoms

Symptoms of head and neck cancer vary, depending on the type. A broad spectrum of symptoms may include:

  • Chronic sinus infections that do not respond to treatment
  • Difficulty or pain when swallowing
  • Voice changes or hoarseness
  • Pain in the neck, throat, jaw, or chin that does not go away
  • Ear pain, ringing in the ears, or trouble hearing
  • A sore, blister, or other lesion of the mouth that does not heal
  • Bloody sputum
  • Difficulty opening mouth or chewing
  • Unusually foul breath
  • Double vision
  • Lump(s) in the neck

These are common symptoms of head and neck cancer, but there are other symptoms that relate specifically to each type. These types may include:

Causes and Risk Factors

Risk factors for head and neck cancer vary among the different types, but tobacco and alcohol use are among the most significant risks. In recent years, HPV has been linked to cancers of the mouth and head, especially cancers of the oropharynx. Some HPV-linked cancers are on the rise, especially in young people and those who never used tobacco.

Other risk factors for head and neck cancer include:

Diagnosis

How head and neck cancer is diagnosed depends on what type of cancer is suspected. Lab tests, imaging tests, biopsies, and endoscopies are all methods of diagnosing many types of cancer. Once cancer is confirmed, the cancer stage is then determined and a treatment plan is created.

Treatment

Treatment for head and neck cancer depends on the type of cancer, the stage of the cancer, and other general health factors. Common methods of treating head and neck cancer include:

Recap

Different cancers of the head and neck may share some common symptoms but arise from different causes. Treatment will depend on exactly what type of cancer is diagnosed. So does prevention, which focuses on specific risk factors for head and neck cancers.

Prevention

HPV is most commonly known for causing cervical cancer in women, but there is mounting evidence of its role in other types of cancer. Limiting any exposure to HPV also may decrease the risk of head and neck cancer, and an HPV vaccine is one way to do that.

Another way is to know or review sexually transmitted diseases (STD), and their symptoms and risks, along with a look at your own sexual behaviors. These routes for transmitting HPV may include:

  • Vaginal intercourse
  • Anal intercourse
  • Oral sex
  • Kissing
  • Using undisinfected sex toys after an infected person

Many studies suggest a link between HPV infection and some types of head and neck cancer, including those found in a 2018 review. Yet even cases in the subset of these HPV-related cancers are not the same, and researchers are finding some differences based on genetics. That may lead to more targeted treatments in the future.

Tobacco and alcohol use have long been associated with head and neck cancers, and that's a good reason to avoid them. In fact, the risk is greater for people who both drink and use tobacco products.

Poor oral hygiene may also be related to head and neck cancer. Dentures that cause irritation due to improper fit, along with any untreated cavities, may increase your risk of oral cancer.

Summary

There are quite a few different kinds of head and neck cancer, including cancers associated with HPV. The symptoms and treatment depend on the cancer and, among other things, how far it has advanced. Prevention, too, depends on what kind of cancer and the likely risk factors for it.

A Word From Verywell

Some of the symptoms linked with head and neck cancers are pretty general, and they could mean nothing more than a cold or an overdue trip to the dentist. But when these symptoms don't go away, or they happen in a context that worries you, call your doctor to discuss your concerns.

Above all, don't hesitate to ask about how you can protect yourself from these cancers, especially any HPV-related cancers. Your doctor also can tell you if an HPV vaccine is a good choice for you.

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Cancer Institute. Head and Neck Cancers. Updated March 29, 2017.

  2. Kobayashi K, Hisamatsu K, Suzui N, Hara A, Tomita H, Miyazaki T. A Review of HPV-Related Head and Neck CancerJ Clin Med. 2018;7(9):241. doi:10.3390/jcm7090241

  3. Oji C, Chukwuneke F. Poor Oral Hygiene may be the Sole Cause of Oral CancerJ Maxillofac Oral Surg. 2012;11(4):379–383. doi:10.1007/s12663-012-0359-5