Head and neck cancers

Head and neck cancers

What to look for

Head and neck cancers is a general term that doctors use to cover any cancer that occurs in this part of the body. It can include:

  • Mouth
  • Lip
  • Tongue
  • Tonsil
  • Thyroid
  • Sinuses
  • Salivary gland
  • Palate
  • Pharynx (the part of your throat behind your mouth and nose)

Oesophageal (gullet) cancer, brain tumours and eye cancer don't tend to be included as head and neck cancers.

Signs and symptoms

The symptoms of head and neck cancers depend on what type it is. Things you should talk to your GP or dentist about include:

  • An ulcer in the mouth that doesn’t heal within a few weeks.
  • Red or white patches in the mouth that don’t go away within a few weeks.
  • Difficulty swallowing or pain when chewing or swallowing.
  • Changes to your voice such as hoarseness (for over 3 weeks).
  • A constant sore throat.
  • A swelling or lump in the face, mouth or neck (for over 3 weeks).

Although these symptoms can be caused by conditions other than cancer, it’s still important to have them checked out by your doctor or dentist early.

For a more detailed list of the different types of head and neck cancers, and the symptoms specific to them, visit NHS Inform or call 0800 22 44 88.

A specialist's view

Unlike breast, bowel and cervical cancer, there is no effective screening test for head and neck cancers.  One of the difficulties is that the symptoms are common symptoms that you can get from other non-cancer problems. 

Some things that you should definitely contact your GP about are a neck lump that’s there for more than three weeks, an ulcer in your mouth that’s there for more than three weeks, persistent (not intermittent) hoarseness lasting longer than three weeks (especially if you are a smoker), persistent pain in the throat or pain when swallowing that lasts more than three weeks. 

While none of these symptoms mean that you definitely have cancer, it is better to get them checked out than to ignore them. 

You can help reduce your risk of developing head and neck cancers by making lifestyle changes like stopping smoking or drinking less alcohol.

Catriona Douglas and Jennifer Montgomery. Head and Neck Surgeons, Glasgow.


  1. Head and neck cancers are the sixth most common cancer in Scotland.
  2. The five year survival rate for people diagnosed with head and neck cancers is over 58%.
  3. There are around 1,300 new cases of head and neck cancers diagnosed every year in Scotland.
  4. Incidence rates of head and neck cancers have increased by 16.8% in the last ten years.

Getting Checked - what's involved?

Some people put off contacting their GP practice because they think they’ll be wasting their time. But your doctor will never think that. If you’ve noticed any symptoms and you’re at all worried about them, they’ll want to know.

And it’s always best to get checked as early as possible. Your doctor will listen carefully to what you’ve noticed and ask some questions about your symptoms. Depending on what you tell them they may be able to reassure you straight away or they may want to do some more checks. They might:

  • Examine the area you are concerned about.
  • Ask for more information on when your symptoms started and whether anything makes them better or worse.
  • Refer you to the hospital for further tests or to see a specialist.

At your routine dental appointment your dentist will also check your mouth for potential signs of oral cancer.

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