What is Head & Neck Cancer?

What is Head & Neck Cancer?

Head and neck cancer is any cancer that develops in the oral and nasal cavity — including the nose, voice box, throat, lips, nasal cavity, paranasal sinuses, salivary glands, larynx, and pharynx.

Types of Head & Neck Cancers


Head and neck cancers typically begin in the squamous cells that line the surfaces of the mouth and throat. Head and neck cancers are defined by where the cancer cells first developed in the body.

Areas in the head and neck region where this cancer can form include:

  • Oral (mouth) cavity – Cancer may develop on the front of the tongue, lips, gums, on the inside lining of the cheeks and lips, the hard palate (bony top of the mouth), the floor of the mouth, or behind the wisdom teeth. Oral cancer is the most common type of head and neck cancer.
  • Pharynx (throat) – Cancer can form in the pharynx, the hollow tube that runs from behind the nose to the esophagus
  • Larynx (voice box) – Located at the top of the windpipe, the larynx contains the vocal cords
    Nasal cavities and sinuses – The nasal cavities lie behind the nose and the sinuses surround the nasal cavities

Diagram of the cross section of the nose, mouth, throat illustrating where nasopharyngeal carcinoma affects the body

Signs & Symptoms


Signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer can vary, depending on the type of cancer and the areas affected. Some of the more common symptoms may include:

  • Tongue or mouth sores, particularly ones that do not heal or chronically bleed
  • Chronic or persistent sore throat
  • Red or white patches inside the mouth
  • Persistent hoarseness, or changes in your voice
  • Unpleasant mouth odor despite good dental hygiene practices
  • Swallowing issues
  • Trouble speaking or breathing
  • Bleeding gums, nosebleeds, or bloody saliva
  • Chronic sinus infections despite antibiotic treatments
  • Persistent headaches
  • Continuous neck or jaw pain
  • Loose teeth
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Ear pain

Although many of these symptoms mimic those linked to common ailments, it’s a good idea to see your doctor if they persistently occur.


Causes & Risk Factors

Causes & Risk Factors

While anyone can develop head and neck cancer, there are behaviors and risk factors that can increase your chances of getting it, including:

  • Tobacco use - Including cigarettes, vaping, cigars, pipes, and chewing tobacco
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • HPV (human papillomavirus) is linked to causing types of head and neck cancer
  • Gender - Men are twice as likely as women to develop head and neck cancer
  • Age - Head and neck cancers are more frequently found in people over the age of 50



An estimated 70% to 80% of head and neck cancer cases can be linked to tobacco use. There are some actions you can take to lower your risk of developing the condition, such as:

  • Quit using tobacco - This includes cigarettes, pipes, vaping, cigars, and chewing tobacco
  • Moderate your alcohol intake - Reducing your alcohol consumption can lower your risk
  • Get the HPV vaccine - The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine may prevent types of head and neck cancer. It’s recommended for most young people up until the age of 26.
  • Get regular exams/screenings - There is no routine test to screen for head and neck cancer, but your doctor or dentist can check the oral cavity for signs during a regular checkup.
Get Care

Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Head & Neck Cancer Care

NewYork-Presbyterian is home to two leading national cancer centers. Our doctors are experts in identifying the symptoms of a wide range of cancers, including head and neck, lung, breast, prostate, colon, brain, and blood cancer.

Head and neck cancer is highly curable if detected early. If you are experiencing head or neck cancer symptoms, reach out to us today for an appointment.