Head and neck cancer is a general term that covers many different types of cancers. These include nasal and paranasal sinus cancer, mouth and oropharyngeal cancer (incl. tonsil cancer), laryngeal cancer, salivary gland cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer and throat cancer.

Most head and neck cancers start in the cells that line the mouth, nose or throat (squamous cells). These are called squamous cell carcinomas. Some cancers start in glandular cells. Many of these are called adenocarcinomas. Squamous cell carcinomas and adenocarcinomas can also occur in other parts of the body.

  • Mouth or oral cancer – Mouth cancer can start in the lips, gums or soft sides of your mouth. The oropharynx is the part of the throat (pharynx) just behind the mouth. Cancer starting in the oropharynx is called oropharyngeal cancer.
  • Laryngeal cancer – Laryngeal cancer is cancer that starts in the voice box (larynx). It is a rare type of head and neck cancer
  • Nasal cancer or paranasal sinus cancer – Cancer can start in the lining of the space behind the nose (nasal cavity) or in the small, air filled spaces within the bones close to the nasal cavity (paranasal sinuses).
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer – Nasopharyngeal cancer starts in the area behind the nose where it meets the throat (the nasopharynx). Find out about symptoms, causes, tests, treatment and about coping with it.
  • Oesophageal cancer – oesophageal cancer starts in the food pipe, also known as your oesophagus or gullet. The oesophagus is the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach.
  • Salivary gland cancer – Salivary gland cancer can start in any of the glands that make spit (saliva). As well as 3 major pairs of salivary glands we have over 600 smaller, minor salivary glands throughout the lining of the mouth and throat.
  • Throat cancer – Throat cancer can mean cancer that starts in any of the different structures and areas within the throat.
  • Tonque cancer – Tonque cancer is classed as a mouth or oropharyngeal cancer. This depends on whether it starts in the front or the back of the tongue
  • Tonsil cancer – Cancer of the tonsil develops in the part of the throat just behind our mouth. called the oropharynx. It is a type of head and neck cancer.
  • Cancer of the ear – There are 3 parts to the ear. These are the outer. middle or inner ear. Although rare, cancer can affect all of these parts.

Other cancers in the head and neck area…

Cancer can start in the tissue of the brain, eye, oesophagus, thyroid gland, skin and scalp. It can also start in the bone or muscle of the head and neck. These cancers are not classified as head and neck cancer. For information about these cancers go to https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/head-neck-cancer

There are around 12,400 new head and neck cancer cases in the UK every year, that’s 34 every day (2016-2018). Head and neck cancer is the 8th most common cancer in the UK, accounting for 3% of all new cancer cases (2016-2018).

There are many possible symptoms of head and neck cancer. However, displaying these symptoms does not necessarily mean you have cancer. Only a qualified medical practitioner can make this diagnosis.

Oral cancer

Oral cancer

  • mouth pain or pain on swallowing
  • mouth pain or pain on swallowing
  • a persistent sore or swelling in the mouth or jaw
  • unusual bleeding or numbness in the mouth
  • white patches (leukoplakia) or red patches (erythroplakia) on your gums, tongue or mouth
  • changes in speech or difficulty pronouncing words
  • difficulty chewing or swallowing food
  • weight loss
  • a lump in your neck
  • loose teeth or dentures that no longer fit

Pharyngeal cancer

Pharyngeal cancer

  • throat pain or difficulty swallowing
  • a persistent sore throat or cough
  • coughing up bloody phlegm
  • bad breath
  • weight loss
  • voice changes or hoarseness
  • dull pain around the breastbone
  • a lump in the neck
  • pain in the ear
  • feeling that your air supply is blocked
  • numbness of the face

Salivary gland cancer

Salivary gland cancer

  • swelling or a lump near the ear, jaw, lip, or inside the mouth
  • different appearance on each side of the face or neck
  • difficulty swallowing or opening mouth widely
  • drooping, numbness or muscle weakness on one side of the face (palsy)

Laryngeal cancer

Laryngeal cancer

  • swelling or a lump in your neck or throat
  • a persistent sore throat
  • a persistent change in the sound of your voice, including hoarseness
  • difficulty swallowing or painful swallowing
  • constant coughing
  • difficulty breathing
  • weight loss

Nasal or paranasal sinus cancer

Nasal or paranasal sinus cancer

  • decreased sense of smell
  • a persistent blocked nose, particularly in one nostril
  • nosebleeds
  • excess mucus in the throat or back of the nose
  • frequent headaches or sinus pressure
  • difficulty swallowing
  • loose or painful teeth
  • a lump on/in your face, nose or mouth
  • numbness of the face or within the mouth
  • pressure or pain in your ears
  • a bulging or watery eye
  • double vision
  • complete or partial loss of eyesight

A number of factors are associated with increased risk.

Major risk factors

Other risk factors

Incident Statistics

More Facts

There are around 12,400 new head and neck cancer cases in the UK every year, that’s 34 every day (2016-2018).

  • Head and neck cancer is the 8th most common cancer in the UK, accounting for 3% of all new cancer cases (2016-2018).
  • In females in the UK, head and neck cancer is the 13th most common cancer, with around 3,900 new cases every year (2016-2018).
  • In males in the UK, head and neck cancer is the 4th most common cancer, with around 8,600 new cases every year (2016-2018).
  • Incidence rates for head and neck cancer in the UK are highest in people aged 70 to 74 (2016-2018).
  • Each year more than a fifth (22%) of all new head and neck cancer cases in the UK are diagnosed in people aged 75 and over (2016-2018).
  • Since the early 1990s, head and neck cancer incidence rates have increased by around a third (34%) in the UK. Rates in females have increased by almost half (45%), and rates in males have increased by more than a fifth (22%) (2016-2018).
  • Over the last decade, head and neck cancer incidence rates have increased by almost a sixth (16%) in the UK. Rates in females have increased by around a fifth (21%), and rates in males have increased by more than a tenth (12%) (2016-2018).
  • See our new Early Diagnosis Data Hub(link is external)for statistics on stage at diagnosis for head & neck cancers.
  • The most common specific location for head and neck cancers in the UK is the tongue (2016-2018).
  • Head and neck cancer incidence rates in England in females are 64% higher in the most deprived quintile compared with the least, and in males are 101% higher in the most deprived quintile compared with the least (2013-2017).
  • Around 2,300 cases of head and neck cancer each year in England are linked with deprivation (around 520 in females and around 1,800 in males).
  • Incidence rates for head and neck cancer are lower in the Asian and Black ethnic groups, and in people of mixed or multiple ethnicity, compared with the White ethnic group, in England. However, incidence rates are higher compared with the White ethnic group in females in the Asian ethnic group (2013-2017). See our publication Cancer Incidence by Broad Ethnic Group(link is external)for more details.
  • An estimated 62,500 people who had previously been diagnosed with head and neck cancer were alive in the UK at the end of 2010.