What is Head and Neck cancer?

Squamous cells are present in mucosal and moist surface inside the head and the neck. Head and Neck Cancer includes multiple types of organs such as mouth, sinuses, nose, throat, tongue, tonsils palate, parotid and thyroid gland. Rare, but salivary gland can also be affected with Head and Neck cancer. Also, as the Salivary glands have multiple types of cells, there are chances of growing multiple types of cancers as well. Head and Neck cancer is broadly divided into 6 categories depending on where they have begun.


Oral Cavity

Oral cavity cancer includes the oral parts such as the frontal two-third part of the tongue, the bony top of the mouth, the lips, the gum behind the wisdom teeth, the floor under the tongue and the cheeks and lip lining. Tongue cancer is the most common of all the categories here.


Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity

This cancer starts with the small hollow spaces of the bone that surrounds the tip of the nose. The nasal cavity i.e. the hollow passage inside the nose can also form cancer.



Pharynx, behind the nose and mouth, is the membrane-lined cavity or hollow tube of 5 inches. It has 3 parts: the nasopharynx (the upper part), the Oropharynx (the middle part) and the Hypopharynx (the lower part). Any one of these three or all three parts can be affected with neck cancer.



Laryngeal cancer is the growth of malignant cells in the tissues of the larynx. Excessive consumption of alcohol and tobacco products increases the risk factor of Laryngeal cancer. This type of cancer can damage the patient’s voice. If not early detected, this type of cancer has a tendency of spreading to the other parts of the head and the neck.


Salivary glands

All the major saliva glands that produce saliva can develop Salivary glands cancer.



The Thyroid can develop multiple types of cancers with good prognosis treatment.


Causes of Throat Cancer and Head Cancer

For Oral cancers, tobacco and smoking alcohol consumption are the top three factors held responsible. Researches show three-fourth of the Head and Neck cancer is caused by Tobacco and Alcohol.


Other risk factors are:

Betel quid or Paan is widely used as a mouth freshener in South-East Asia. The betel quid has a direct influence on cancer formation in the mouth.



Asian ancestry has a specific chance of developing Head and Neck Cancer.


Occupational exposure

Exposure to wood dust can be a symptom of nasopharyngeal cancer. Wood dust that contains asbestos and synthetic fibres may cause larynx cancer. People associated with the food industry, textile, metal, ceramic, construction and logging industry are especially exposed to larynx cancer. These conditions also increase the chances of nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses cancer.


Preserved or salted foods

Especially during childhood and early adulthood, certain salted and preserved foods increase the chance of nasopharyngeal cancer.


Radiation exposure

If radiation is given to someone’s head and neck for diagnosis of some another complication, it can have a future risk of Head Cancer specially Thyroid cancers.


Poor oral health

Missing teeth, weak gum and poor oral health may be indirect signs of oral gum cancer. Mouthwashes with high alcohol content can be a reason for mouth cancer but no study could prove it so far.


Epstein-Barr virus infection

The Epstein-Barr virus is a probable risk factor of nasopharyngeal cancer and salivary glands cancer. Human papilloma virus is a risk factor for Oropharyngeal cancers.


Head and neck cancer symptoms

For a significant amount of time, Head and Neck cancer is asymptomatic or the symptoms can arise at more advanced stages of cancer. Here are a few most common throat cancer symptoms and Head and neck cancer symptoms:

  • A sore throat or swelling that does not heal
  • Excessive foul mouth odour
  • Double vision
  • White or red patch inside the mouth
  • Loss of teeth
  • Persistent nasal congestion or nasal obstruction
  • Difficulty in protesim of tongue
  • Change in speech pattern
  • Loss of mouth opening.
  • Mass, bump or lump in the neck and head area (with or without pain)
  • Change in voice (hoarseness)
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Frequent nose bleeding or unexplained nasal discharge
  • Jaw pain
  • Weakness or numbness around the head and neck area
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Difficulty in swelling, chewing, moving the tongue and jaw
  • Blood from saliva or phlegm
  • Ear pain or ear infection

Head and Neck Cancer Diagnosis

Head and Neck cancer diagnosis is done mainly for 2 reasons: to know the exact place of cancer and to know whether it has spread to other organs or not. If the Head and Neck cancer spreads from one organ to another, it is called metastasis.


Few most authentic diagnoses of Lymphoma and other Head and Neck cancers are:

  • Biopsy
  • Panoramic Radiograph
  • Endoscopy
  • Imaging test
  • Ultrasound
  • Molecular testing of the tumour
  • Computed tomography scan
  • Blood and urine tests
  • Bone scan
  • X-ray
  • Magnetic resonance imaging
  • PET or PET-CT scan
  • Barium swallow


Apart from these tests, the overall diagnosis of the person depends on these factors:

  • The type of cancer
  • Patient’s signs and symptoms
  • Patient’s medical condition and age
  • The results of earlier medical tests

Head and Neck cancer is a type of cancer which is often curable if detected early. The treatment might include radiation therapy, surgery, chemotherapy or multiple treatments combined from the list.



Primary treatment of an Oral cavity, salivary gland and thyroid cancer is surgery. Other cancers are amenable to radial or combined chemotherapy & Radiation.

Content Reviewed By: Dr. Piyush kumar Agarwal