Cancers of the head and neck are defined as those that grow in the throat, larynx, nose, sinuses, and mouth. Most of these develop in the cells that line the mucosal surfaces of the head and neck, and are referred to as squamous cell carcinomas. Other cancers that form in this part of the body (e.g. brain tumors, thyroid cancer, etc.) are not classified as head and neck cancers because they behave very differently.

Head and Neck Cancer Categories

Head and neck cancers are categorized based on which region of the head or neck they originate in. Classifications include:

  • Oral cavity. Includes the lips, tongue, gums, hard palate, and bottom of the mouth.
  • Larynx. Also called the voicebox. Includes the vocal cords and epiglottis.
  • Pharynx. The throat is made up of three parts: the nasopharynx (upper portion), oropharynx (middle part), and hypopharynx (lower portion).
  • Nasal cavity. Includes the sinuses.
  • Salivary glands. Located on the floor of the mouth near the jawbone.

Symptoms & Causes

Symptoms of head and neck cancer may seem minor or insignificant at first. You may experience a sore throat, hoarseness, and difficulty swallowing. Other signs include a sore that doesn’t heal, persistent congestion, swollen jaw, headache, earache, facial numbness, swollen lymph nodes, bleeding from the mouth, and sinus infections that fail to respond to treatment. Since many of these symptoms are associated with less serious conditions, you may not think they indicate anything out of the ordinary. Should any of these fail to clear up or improve after a reasonable period of time, seek medical attention.

Alcohol and tobacco are the biggest risk factors for developing head and neck cancer; 75% of all cancers in this region are linked to tobacco and alcohol use. People who use both have the most risk of developing cancer.

Other risk factors for head and neck cancers include occupational and industrial exposures (e.g. wood dust, asbestos, synthetic fibers, formaldehyde), dietary factors (consuming foods high in preservatives and salts), radiation exposure, Epstein-Barr infection, poor oral hygiene, human papillomavirus infection, and ancestry (Asian, particularly Chinese).


Treatment depends upon several factors. The size and location of the tumor, its stage, and the patient’s age and health must all be taken into consideration. Options include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or a combination of the above.