Signs and symptoms

Head and neck cancers may show symptoms but in some cases there may be no obvious signs. The symptoms of a head and neck cancer will also depend on where it is.

Common symptoms include:

  • an ulcer in the mouth that does not heal within a few weeks
  • red or white patches in the mouth that does not go away within a few weeks
  • difficulty swallowing or pain when chewing or swallowing
  • changes to your voice (for example, hoarseness)
  • a constant sore throat and earache on one side
  • a swelling or lump in the face, mouth or neck

Other less common symptoms include:

  • a loose tooth
  • a blocked nose or nosebleeds
  • pain or numbness in the face or upper jaw

Although these symptoms can be caused by conditions other than cancer, it is important to have them checked out by your GP or dentist, particularly if they continue for 3-4 weeks.
Lumps in the neck

If a cancer in the mouth or throat spreads from where it started, the first place it will usually spread to is the lymph nodes in the neck. Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped structures that are part of the lymphatic system.

The cancer may begin to grow in the lymph nodes. This can show up as a painless lump in the neck.
Enlarged lymph nodes are much more likely to be due to an infection than to cancer. But if you have a lump on your neck that has not gone away within 3-4 weeks, it should be examined by a specialist doctor.