Doctor examining patient's neck

Head and neck cancer: Signs and symptoms

Head and neck cancers include cancers that start in the mouth, nose, sinuses, throat, larynx and lymph nodes in the neck. In 2023, it is estimated that there will be about 66,920 new cases of head and neck cancer in the United States, and around 15,400 deaths. Despite advances in diagnosis and treatment, mortality rates for head and neck cancer have remained relatively stable in recent years, highlighting the need for continued research and education.

Smoking is the leading risk factor for head and neck cancer, accounting for approximately 75% of cases. Heavy alcohol consumption is also a risk factor, and people who use both tobacco and alcohol are at a significantly higher risk than those who use either substance alone.

While head and neck cancer can be difficult to detect early, here are some common signs and symptoms to be aware of:

Persistent Sore Throat

A persistent sore throat is one of the most common symptoms of head and neck cancers. When experiencing this symptom, your throat might feel scratchy or like you have a lump in it. Additionally, it may not respond to common treatments, including over-the-counter medication. 


Hoarseness is another common symptom of head and neck cancers. If you experience this change in voice and it persists for more than a week or two, seek care from your medical provider. 

Swelling in the Neck

When cancer spreads to the lymph nodes in the neck area, it can cause swelling, lumps and discomfort. These lumps are typically painless, but they may grow larger over time and can potentially indicate cancer.

Difficulty Swallowing

Difficulty swallowing, also called dysphagia, is a common symptom of both throat and esophageal cancer. Dysphagia can make eating and drinking challenging and may eventually lead to significant weight loss. 

Mouth Discomfort

Oral cancer is a common type of head and neck cancer that can present as ulcers or red or white patches (leukoplakia) in the mouth or throat. Other symptoms of oral cancer may include bleeding, numbness, or tingling in the mouth, pain or swelling in the jaw or teeth that become loose.

Ear Pain

Ear pain can occur due to cancer in the throat, head and neck that has spread to the ears. The pain may be persistent, and it may not subside even after treatment.

Vision Changes

If cancer has spread to the sinuses or eyes, it can cause vision changes like double vision, blurred vision or loss of peripheral vision. This can occur when the cancer grows or spreads onto the cranial nerves that control vision.

Changes in Skin

If you have neck cancer, the skin on your neck may change in appearance. It can become darker, discolored or patchy.

City of Hope is a nationally recognized leader in the research and treatment of head and neck cancers. If you or someone you love is experiencing any of these symptoms, we are here to help. Early diagnosis can significantly improve the chances of successful treatment and survival.