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Symptoms and Risk Factors of Head and Neck Cancer

Over 50,000 oral, head and neck cancer cases are diagnosed annually (American Cancer Society, 2014). Head and neck cancers typically begin in the cells that line the mucosal surfaces in the mouth, nose and throat. These cancers are most often linked to tobacco use - 85% of patients have a history of smoking; however, over the past decade, a growing number of young, non-smokers have developed oral cancer associated with the human-papilloma virus, or HPV. Today, 25 percent of oral, head and neck cancer cases might be attributable to a strain of HPV.

Oral, head and neck cancers include cancers of the following areas:

  • Mouth
  • Throat
  • Voice Box
  • Skin
  • Sinuses
  • Saliva glands

Head and Neck Cancer Symptoms

Symptoms of head, neck or throat cancer include:

  • Sore in the neck, throat or mouth that doesn't heal
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Change or hoarseness in the voice
  • Chronic sinus infection
  • Chronic nosebleed
  • Unusual bleeding or red or white patches in the mouth
  • Swelling in the jaw or under the chin
  • Ear pain or ringing
  • Trouble breathing, speaking or hearing

How doctors treat the disease depends on where the cancer started, how long it has been there and whether it has spread. Surgery to remove the cancer, as well as chemotherapy and radiation therapy to kill cancer cells, may be used separately or in combination.

Head and Neck Cancer Risk Factors

Alcohol and Tobacco Use

The most common factors for oral, head and neck cancers are alcohol and tobacco use, including chewing tobacco.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

Approximately 20 million people in the U.S. currently have HPV infection. Most sexually active people have had an HPV infection at some point in their lives, although many never know they were infected, and most people will not have any health problems related to it.

Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) is a risk factor for some types of oral head and neck cancers, particularly cancer that involves the tonsils or base of the tongue. In the United States, the incidence of these cancers caused by HPV infection is increasing. HPV-related head and neck cancer occurs in people who smoke and those who do not smoke. Over the past decade, an increasing number of young, non-smokers have developed mouth and throat cancer associated with HPV.