Head and Neck Cancers

What are Head and Neck Cancers?

Head and neck cancers are any cancers that begin in the head or neck, including cancer of the larynx, throat, sinuses and salivary glands. In most cases, head and neck cancers start in squamous cells that reside in the moist areas of the nose, mouth or throat. About 3 percent of all diagnosed cancers in the U.S. are head and neck cancers.

People who smoke or use other oral tobacco products are at increased risk of developing oral cancers and other cancers of the head and neck. Other causes include exposure to some types of chemicals, infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV) or Epstein-Barr virus, drinking alcohol excessively or spending long amounts of time in the sun. Some types of X-rays may increase your chances of developing head or neck cancers.

What are the Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancers?

One key sign of head and neck cancers is a lump or sore that doesn’t go away. Chronic sore throat and hoarseness may also indicate an issue, although these may have other causes.

Additional symptoms are dependent on the type of head or neck cancer. Oral cavity cancers may start as red or white patches on the gums or tongue, or unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth. Cancers in the sinuses may feel blocked and you may experience headaches and regular infections. Salivary gland cancers can cause swelling under the chin and pain in the facial muscles.

Head and Neck Cancers Causes

Most head and neck cancers result from squamous cell carcinomas lining the soft inside surfaces of five specific areas; mouth, ear, nose, throat, and neck. Each one connects to the internal body appendages with unique functions and causes for developing abnormal cancer cells, forming tumors.

Lifestyles including excessive smoking, alcohol, and drugs raise the risk of developing head and neck cancers. Extensive exposure to the environment raises the risk of these cancers occurring through direct contact or airborne particles from asbestos, wood dust, paint, or harmful chemical fumes.

Genetics play a major role in increasing the risk of the cancers by passing on the mutated gene to the next generation. Sometimes, the condition occurs without any family history or illness associated with the disease.

Illnesses affecting the immune system bring about infections from viruses, causing changes in metabolic processes, prompting the immune system to attack healthy cells instigating the growth of abnormal cancer-causing cells. The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most commonly transmitted disease linked with squamous cell carcinomas and high-risk infections leading to head and neck cancers.

How are Head and Neck Cancers Treated?

Treatments for head and neck cancer may include radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of treatments. Sometimes surgery is necessary to remove tumors that are impacting breathing or swallowing. If you smoke or use tobacco products, it’s important to quit.

Recent studies have shown patients with HPV that leads to cancer may have a better outcome and can benefit from less invasive treatments.

Head and Neck Cancers Prevention

Changing your lifestyle habits can prevent some of these cancers or lessen the risk of developing head and neck cancers. Start by developing a healthier lifestyle; controlling your diet and limit the consumption of alcohol and smoking.

You can reduce the risk of these cancers in high-risk work environments by wearing the proper protective gear including air-filtering masks to prevent against inhalation of harmful fumes and dust particles.

Family history and medical patterns contribute to the threat of developing one of the five head and neck cancers. Regular visits with your doctor for early detection can prevent serious health issues related to these cancers.

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Last Reviewed:
September 21, 2016
Last Updated:
January 05, 2018