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Head and Neck Cancer


What is head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancer is the name for cancers that develop in the mouth, nose and sinuses, salivary glands, and throat and voice box (larynx). Most head and neck cancers are squamous cell cancers. They begin in the moist tissues that line the head and neck. The cancer cells may spread into deeper tissue as the cancer grows.

There are other cancers that develop in the head and neck, such as brain cancer, eye cancer, and esophageal cancer. But they are usually not considered to be head and neck cancers, because those types of cancer and their treatments are different.

Who is more likely to develop head and neck cancer?

Anyone can get head and neck cancer, but you are more likely to develop it if you:

  • Use tobacco or drink lots of alcohol. Your risk of developing head and neck cancer is even higher if you do both.
  • Are male.
  • Are over age 50.
  • Have a history of head or neck cancer.
  • Have HPV (for cancers in the tonsils and base of the tongue).
  • Are exposed to wood dusts or certain other toxic substances at work (for upper throat, nose, and sinus cancers).
  • Have had radiation exposure to the head and neck (for salivary gland cancer).
  • Have Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection (for upper throat and salivary gland cancers).
  • Are Asian (for upper throat cancer).

What are the symptoms of head and neck cancer?

The symptoms of head and neck cancer may include:

  • A lump in the neck
  • A sore in the mouth or the throat that does not heal and may be painful
  • A sore throat that does not go away
  • Trouble swallowing
  • A change or hoarseness in the voice

Other possible symptoms can depend on the specific type of head and neck cancer.

How is head and neck cancer diagnosed?

Which exams and tests used to diagnose head and neck cancer can depend on the specific type of cancer. Possible exams and tests may include:

  • A physical exam of the area that might have cancer.
  • Blood and/or urine tests.
  • An endoscopy.
  • A biopsy or other procedure to collect cells from the area that might have cancer. The cells are viewed under a microscope to find out if they are abnormal.
  • Imaging tests.

What are the treatments for head and neck cancer?

The treatment for head and neck cancer will depend on the specific type of cancer, the stage (how advanced the cancer is), your overall health, and other factors. The treatment options might include:

In some cases, you may need a combination of treatments. Sometimes surgery can affect how well you can chew, swallow, or talk. Rehabilitation, such as physical therapy, dietary counseling, and speech therapy, may help.

Can head and neck cancer be prevented?

There are steps you can take to help prevent head and neck cancer:

  • Not smoking
  • Limiting alcohol use or not drinking at all
  • Getting regular dental exams
  • Talking to your provider about HPV vaccination

NIH: National Cancer Institute

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The information on this site should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care or advice. Contact a health care provider if you have questions about your health.