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Head and neck cancer

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Definition

Cancer that arises in the head or neck region.

Head & Neck Cancer
Head & Neck Cancer

Areas affected

The nasal cavity, sinuses, lips, mouth, salivary glands, throat, or larynx [voice box]).

Risk factors

Tobacco use, heavy alcohol use, and infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) increase the risk of head and neck cancers.

HPV & head and neck cancer

About 70% of cancers in the oropharynx (which includes the tonsils, soft palate, and base of the tongue) are linked to human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted virus.

Ultraviolet light exposure

Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure, such as exposure to the sun or artificial UV rays like tanning beds, is a major cause of cancer on the lips.

Occupational exposures, or being exposed to certain substances while on the job, can increase the risk of getting cancers in the nasopharynx. Working in the construction, textile, ceramic, logging, and food processing industries can cause people to be exposed to substances like wood dust, formaldehyde, asbestos, nickel, and other chemicals.

EBV virus

An infection with the Epstein-Barr virus, a cause of infectious mononucleosis and other illnesses, can raise the risk of cancers in the nose, behind the nose, and cancers of the salivary glands.

Radiation

Radiation treatments to the head and neck can cause head and neck cancers.

Sex ratio

About twice as many men as women get head and neck cancers. They are more likely to be diagnosed in people who are over 50 years of age.

Symptoms

  • In the mouth, cancer can cause—
  • A white or red sore that does not heal on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth.
  • Swelling in the jaw.
  • Unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth.
  • A lump or thickening.
  • Problems with dentures.
  • At the back of the mouth (pharynx), cancer can cause—
  • Trouble breathing or speaking.
  • A lump or thickening.
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing food.
  • A feeling that something is caught in the throat.
  • Pain in the throat that won’t go away.
  • Pain or ringing in the ears or trouble hearing.
  • In the voice box (larynx), cancer can cause—
  • Pain when swallowing.
  • Ear pain.
  • In the sinuses and nasal cavity, cancer can cause—
  • Blocked sinuses that don’t clear.
  • Sinus infections that do not respond to treatment with antibiotics.
  • Bleeding through the nose.
  • Headaches.
  • Pain and swelling around the eyes.
  • Pain in the upper teeth.
  • Problems with dentures.

Prevention

  • You can lower your risk of getting head and neck cancer in several ways—
  • Don’t smoke. If you smoke, quit. Quitting smokingexternal icon lowers the risk for cancer.
  • Don’t use smokeless tobacco products.
  • Limit the amount of alcohol you drink.
  • Talk to your doctor about HPV vaccination. The HPV vaccine can prevent new infections with the types of HPV that most often cause oropharyngeal and other cancers. Vaccination is recommended only for people at certain ages.
  • Use condoms and dental dams consistently and correctly during oral sex, which may help lower the chances of giving or getting HPV.
  • Use lip balm that contains sunscreen, wear a wide-brimmed hat when outdoors, and avoid indoor tanning.
  • Visit the dentist regularly. Checkups often can find head and neck cancers early, when they are easier to treat.

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