What are the different types of head and neck cancers?

What causes head and neck cancer?

Alcohol and tobacco use (including smokeless tobacco, sometimes called “chewing tobacco” or “snuff”) are the two most important risk factors for head and neck cancers, especially cancers of the oral cavity, oropharynx, hypopharynx, and larynx. People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk of developing these cancers than those who use tobacco or alcohol alone. Tobacco and alcohol use are not risk factors for salivary gland cancers.

Infection with cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus (HPV), especially HPV type 16, is a risk factor for some types of head and neck cancers, particularly oropharyngeal cancers that involve the tonsils or the base of the tongue.

Other risk factors for cancers of the head and neck include the following:

  • Paan (betel quid). Immigrants from Southeast Asia who use paan (betel quid) in the mouth should be aware that this habit has been strongly associated with an increased risk of oral cancer
  • Preserved or salted foods. Consumption of certain preserved or salted foods during childhood is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer
  • Oral health. Poor oral hygiene and missing teeth may be weak risk factors for cancers of the oral cavity. Use of mouthwash that has a high alcohol content is a possible, but not proven, risk factor for cancers of the oral cavity

What are the symptoms of head and neck cancer?

The symptoms of head and neck cancers are similar to other conditions, so it is important to see your GP in the first instance. Symptoms may include:

  • Red or white patch in the mouth
  • Persistent mouth ulcers
  • Difficulties swallowing
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Weight loss or low appetite
  • Jaw pain
  • Persistent sore throat and nose bleeds
  • A lump, a bump or swelling in the neck or the mouth even if it is not painful
  • Difficulties breathing

What are the investigations for head and neck cancer?

Accurate investigation and staging are essential for the appropriate management of patients with head or neck cancer. Diagnostics scans used in head and neck cancer are:

  • CT scan
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
  • Blood tests
  • Biopsy
  • X-ray
  • Nasoendoscopy

Related treatments and procedures