Head and neck cancer is a relatively rare type of cancer. Each year, around 13,000 new cases are diagnosed in the UK.
There are over 30 areas within the head and neck where cancer can develop, including the:
- mouth (including lip)
- thyroid gland
- voicebox (larynx)
- salivary glands
- nose and sinuses
- throat (pharynx)
Oesophageal cancer isn't classified as a head and neck cancer. Also, eye cancer is classified as an "ophthalmic tumour", rather than a head and neck cancer.
Mouth cancer can affect a number of areas in and around the mouth including the:
- inside of the cheek
- floor or roof of the mouth
- oropharynx, which includes the tonsils, tongue base and soft palate
Cancer of the mouth is the most common type of head and neck cancer, accounting for around 6,800 diagnoses in the UK each year.
Read more about mouth cancer.
The thyroid gland is a small gland at the base of the neck. It releases hormones that have powerful effects on a number of different functions of the body.
The most common symptom of cancer of the thyroid is a painless lump or swelling that develops in your neck.
Other symptoms only tend to occur after the condition has reached an advanced stage and may include:
- unexplained hoarseness
- difficulty breathing and swallowing
- pain in your neck
Read more about thyroid cancer.
Laryngeal cancer (cancer of the larynx) develops in the tissue of the larynx (voice box).
The main symptom of laryngeal cancer is a change in the voice, such as hoarseness.
Less common symptoms may include:
- difficulty or pain when swallowing
- a persistent cough
- a lump or swelling in your neck
Read more about laryngeal cancer.
Salivary gland cancer
Salivary glands produce saliva, which keeps your mouth moist and helps with swallowing and digestion.
There are three main pairs of salivary glands. They are the:
- parotid glands – which are located between your cheeks and your ears
- sublingual glands – which are located under your tongue
- submandibular glands – which are located under each side of your jawbone
Salivary gland cancer most commonly affects the parotid glands.
Nose and sinus cancer
Nose and sinus cancer affects the nasal cavity (above the roof of your mouth) and the sinuses (the small, air-filled cavities inside your nose and behind your cheekbones and forehead).
The symptoms of nose and sinus cancer are similar to viral or bacterial infections, such as the common cold or sinusitis, and include:
- a persistent blocked nose, which usually only affects one side
- a decreased sense of smell
- mucus running from the nose or down the throat
Read more about nose and sinus cancer.
Nasopharyngeal cancer affects the pharynx (the part of the throat that connects the back of the nose to the back of the mouth).
It's the rarest type of head and neck cancer, with around 240 cases diagnosed each year in the UK.
Symptoms of nasopharyngeal cancer can include:
- a lump in the neck – due to the involvement of lymph nodes (glands)
- hearing loss (usually only in one ear)
- tinnitus – hearing sound from inside the body rather than from an outside source
- a blocked or stuffy nose
- nasal discharge
Read more about nasopharyngeal cancer.
You can find more information about head and neck cancer on the Cancer Research UK and Macmillan websites.
Should I be referred?
In 2015, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published guidelines to help GPs recognise the signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer and refer people for the right tests faster.
To find out if you should be referred for further tests for suspected cancer, read the NICE 2015 guidelines on Suspected Cancer: Recognition and Referral.
How common are head and neck cancers?
Around 13,000 new cases of head and neck cancer are diagnosed in the UK each year, broken down as follows:
- mouth cancer - 6,800*
- thyroid cancer - 2,700
- laryngeal cancer - 2,400
- salivary gland cancer - 660
- nose and sinus cancer - 460
- nasopharyngeal cancer - 240
*This figure includes cancers of the lip, tongue, mouth and oropharynx, which includes the tonsils, tongue base and soft palate.
Source: Cancer Research UK
Page last reviewed: 29/01/2014
Next review due: 29/01/2016