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Head and Neck Cancers

Diagram described below.

Head and neck cancer regions. Illustrates location of paranasal sinuses, nasal cavity, oral cavity, tongue, salivary glands, larynx, and pharynx (including the nasopharynx, oropharynx, and hypopharynx). Click to see a larger diagram.

© 2012 Terese Winslow LLC, U.S. Govt. has certain rights. Used with Permission. Contact artist at for licensing.

Cancer is a disease in which cells of the body grow out of control. Cancers of the head and neck include cancers that start in several places in the head and throat, not including brain cancers or cancers of the eye.

These cancers can start—

  • In the sinuses (the spaces around the nose on the inside of the skull).
  • Inside and behind the nose.
  • In the mouth, including the tongue, the gums, and the roof of the mouth.
  • In the back of the mouth and the throat (pharynx), which includes three sections called the nasopharynx, oropharynx, and hypopharynx.
  • In the larynx (voice box).
  • On the lips, although cancer on the lips is a type of skin cancer.
  • In the glands that make saliva for the mouth, but those are relatively rare.

To lower your risk for head and neck cancers, don’t use tobacco products, limit the amount of alcohol you drink, and avoid indoor tanning.

What Causes Head and Neck Cancers?

Alcohol and tobacco are major risk factors for cancers of the head and neck. All tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco, snuff, or a type of chewing tobacco called betel quid) are linked to head and neck cancer (except for salivary gland cancers). Drinking any type of alcohol, such as beer, wine, or liquor, also raises the risk of getting cancers of the mouth, throat, and voice box.

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 (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.

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

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.

What Are the Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancers?

Lewis’ Story: Throat Cancer Changed His World

Photo of Lewis and his dog

After Lewis was diagnosed with throat cancer, he and his wife Amy started a support group for people with head and neck cancers. Read his story.

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.

How Can I Reduce My Risk for Head and Neck Cancers?

You can lower your risk of getting head and neck cancer in several ways—

  • Don’t smoke. If you smoke, quit. Quitting smoking lowers the risk for cancer.
  • Don’t use smokeless tobacco products.
  • Limit the amount of alcohol you drink.
  • If you are 26 years old or younger, talk to your doctor about HPV vaccines. These vaccines were developed to prevent cervical and other genital cancers. HPV vaccines also may prevent some kinds of head and neck cancer.
  • 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.


The following statistics apply to cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx, which includes cancers of the lip, tongue, mouth, pharynx, and tonsils.

In the United States in 2014 (the most recent year for which numbers are available)—

  • 43,371 people (30,883 men and 12,488 women) got cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx.
  • 9,404 people (6,768 men and 2,636 women) died from cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx.
  • Among men, white men had the highest rate of getting cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx (18.0 per 100,000 men), followed by black men (13.9), Asian/Pacific Islander men (11.1), American Indian/Alaska Native men (10.5), and Hispanic men (10.0).
  • Among women, white women had the highest rate of getting cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx (6.5 per 100,000 women), followed by black women (4.9), Asian/Pacific Islander women (4.7), Hispanic women (4.4), and American Indian/Alaska Native women (3.8).

Hispanic origin is not mutually exclusive from race categories (white, black, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native).

Data source: U.S. Cancer Statistics Working Group. United States Cancer Statistics: 1999–2014 Incidence and Mortality Web-based Report. Atlanta (GA): Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and National Cancer Institute; 2017. Available at: