What Is Head and Neck Cancer?

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Head and neck cancers are cancers that originate in the head or neck region, not including thyroid or skin cancers. They include:

Patient discussing neck problems with doctor
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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
  • general 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 another lesion in or on the mouth that does not heal

These are common symptoms of head and neck cancer, but more symptoms relate specifically to each type.

Causes and Risk Factors

Risk factors for head and neck cancer vary among the different types, but we know that tobacco use and alcohol consumption are the most significant risks. An estimated 75% of head and neck cancer diagnoses are related to alcohol and tobacco use.

Other risk factors for head and neck cancer include:


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 stage of the cancer is then determined and a treatment plan is developed.


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


Since we know that tobacco and alcohol use are strongly linked to head and neck cancer, avoiding both is one of our best prevention defenses. Each is a risk factor for head neck cancer, but the use of both greatly increases the risk.

Limiting your exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV) may also decrease the risk of head and neck cancer. Many studies suggest an association between some types of head and neck cancer with HPV infection, according to a review published in 2018. The virus is most commonly known for causing cervical cancer in women, but the evidence is increasing that it may play a role in the development of other types of cancer.

Poor oral hygiene may also be related to head and neck cancer. Dentures that cause irritation due to improper fit and untreated dental caries may increase your risk of oral cancer.

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  1. National Cancer Institute. Head and Neck Cancers. Updated March 29, 2017.

  2. American Head and Neck Society. Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer. Updated March18, 2014.

  3. 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

  4. 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