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What are the symptoms of head and neck cancer

Most common types of head and neck cancer


The phrase “head and neck cancer” is generally used as a basic way to describe a range of different malignant tumors of the throat, larynx, nose, sinuses, and mouth. Since these almost always involve some region of the head, face, or neck, they are generally referred to as head and neck cancers. These types of cancers are most often squamous cell carcinomas which attack the thin layer of cellular tissue on the surface of most organs and structures in the head. Other cancers can affect the epithelium and the ‘wet’ surfaces that contain mucosa cells. These head and neck cancers come in many types and severities, but there are some that are deemed the most common types of head and neck cancer that need to be checked for regularly.

Most common types of head and neck cancer you need to be aware of

There are five generally recognized types of common cancers found in the neck and head. Each one is named according to the part of the body it affects.

  • Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer. The larynx, also known as the voice box is a long tube-shaped organ in the neck. More than just for speaking, it helps with breathing and swallowing. It can be found above the trachea at the top of the windpipe. The hypopharynx is also as related structure that commonly is referred to as the gullet and is also considered part of this structure.
  • Nasal  and sinus cancer. The nasal cavity makes up the hollow passages behind the nose that connects to the throat and allows for breathing. The sinuses are the air-filled areas that surround the nasal cavity and go along the cheek bones and behind the eyes to expand breathing space and balance pressure within the head.
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer. The nasopharynx is the medical term given to the narrow and relatively passageway that can be found at the upper part of the throat. It is located behind the nose and helps regulate breathing through the nose and through the mouth. These nasal areas are often wet with mucus and help the body’s immune system keep foreign particles out. 
  • Oral and oropharyngeal cancer. The oral cavity is a the most widely recognized of the regions in the head and includes the mouth and tongue. These organs are critical for speaking, eating, drinking, swallowing, and breathing. The oropharynx includes the middle of the throat, generally seen as starting at the tonsils and extending to the tip of the voice box. 
  • Salivary gland cancer. The salivary gland is located in the mouth and jaw area and is the organ that produces saliva. Saliva is the fluid in the mouth that is common referred to as ‘spit’ and keeps the mouth moist. Saliva also contains enzymes that begin breaking down food and is important for digestion and overall nutrient absorption. 

There are other types of cancer that can occur in the head and neck region. However, they are often seen as their own separate class of cancers as the diagnosis and treatment are much different. Some of these secondary head and neck cancers include brain tumors, esophageal cancer, eye cancer, parathyroid cancer, sarcoma, and thyroid cancer.

Which are warning signs of head and neck cancer to watch out for?

People with head and neck cancer can experience a wide range of symptoms and early warning signs. Depending on the type of cancer and how far it has progresses, symptoms can be mild or severe. It is also possible to have cancer of the head or neck and have no real major signs or symptoms early on. Some common signs to watch for and talk to your doctor about include the following:

  • Swelling in a local area or a sore that won’t heal or keeps coming back
  • Red or white patches that form on the throat or in the mouth
  • Lump, bump, or mass that appears anywhere and that may or may not cause pain
  • Persistent sore throat that does not respond to normal care or treatment
  • Foul mouth odor that does not improve with better oral hygiene and care
  • Hoarseness or change in voice not otherwise explained
  • Nasal obstruction or persistent nasal congestion
  • Frequent nose bleeds or concerning and abnormal nasal and sinus discharge
  • Difficulty breathing especially at night or when overly stressed
  • Double vision or other suddenly occurring vision disturbances
  • Numbness or weakness of a body part in the head and neck region
  • Pain or difficulty with moving the tongue, jaw, or head
  • Jaw pain in the bone or muscles inside or outside the jaw bone area
  • Blood in the saliva or phlegm that is coughed up
  • Loosening of teeth or other unexpected dental issues
  • Dentures that do not fit right anymore due to swelling
  • Unexplained weight loss or changes in eating habits due to pain
  • Fatigue and unexplained malaise and lack of energy
  • Ear pain or frequent infections, changes in hearing, and sudden balance issues

It is important to note that the existence of several of these symptoms at once does not immediately mean cancer is the cause. There are other common and less severe conditions and illnesses that can cause similar symptoms. This is why it is important to talk to your doctor about any and all symptoms and to get routine health and wellness checks as well.

Talk to your doctor about the types of head and neck cancer today

If you are concerned about symptoms you have noted or any sudden changes or new pains and concerns that you have, please talk with your doctor. Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms to help diagnose the issue and get you on the treatment plan that is right for you. Your health is too important to take chances with it so be sure to talk to your doctor today if you are worried about head and neck cancers.