Authored by Sara Hoen

Blue checkmark icon Medically reviewed by Todd Hamilton MD & David Pratt MD.

What you need to know about Oral, Head, and Neck Cancer

April 6, 2023 | Ear, Nose, ThroatMedical Oncology

Screening for cancer early is important. Learn about screening for oral, head, and neck cancer.

Almost 55,000 U.S. citizens are diagnosed with oral, head, and neck cancers every year. Because of this, the month of April is recognized as Oral, Head, and Neck Cancer Awareness Month. This type of cancer is not rare, yet 66% of the time, these cancers aren’t found until stages 3 or 4 due to a lack of education and few options for screening.

Fortunately, there is an 80% chance of survival if these cancers are caught in stages 1 or 2, meaning: in order to detect cancers of the mouth, head, and neck early on, it’s important to understand how they’re caused, what symptoms to look for, and when to get screened.

What is oral, head, and neck cancer?

To understand how oral, head, and neck cancers develop, you should first know about the squamous cells, or the flat cells found in the tissues underneath the surface of the skin. These cells line the mucosal surfaces (or the moist inner lining) of the mouth, head, and neck. This is typically where the cancer begins to form, otherwise known as squamous cell carcinomas. These cancerous cells can be found in the larynx, throat, lips, mouth, nose, and salivary glands. If the initial cancerous tumor is too small to detect, squamous cell carcinomas may spread to the lymph nodes in the neck in a condition known as Metastatic Squamous Neck Cancer with Occult Primary.

Types of oral, head, and neck cancers include:

  • Laryngeal (voice box) and Hypopharyngeal (lower throat)
  • Oral Cavity (mouth) and Oropharyngeal (throat)
  • Nasopharyngeal (upper throat)
  • Nasal Cavity (nose) and Paranasal Sinuses (sinus)
  • Salivary Gland

What are the symptoms of oral, head, and neck cancer?

The most common symptoms of oral, head, and neck cancer are:

  • A lump in the neck
  • Sores in the mouth or throat
  • A sore throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Pain or ringing in the ears
  • Hoarseness in the voice

What causes oral, head, and neck cancer?

The main risk factors for oral, head, and neck cancers include:

Tobacco and heavy alcohol use: Most cancers of the mouth and voice box are caused by tobacco and alcohol use. Studies have shown that those who use both tobacco and alcohol have a greater risk of developing cancers of the mouth than those who use either tobacco or alcohol alone.

Human papillomavirus (HPV): According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 70% of cancers in the tonsils, soft palate, and tongue are linked to HPV.

Epstein-Barr virus infection: Epstein-Barr virus isn’t always active in those who contract it, however it may trigger infections and has been associated with other types of cancer, including nasopharyngeal cancer.

Other causes of oral, head, and neck cancers include genetics, radiation exposure, and occupational exposure to wood dust, asbestos, synthetic fibers, and other toxic chemicals.

What can I do to prevent developing oral, head, and neck cancer?

Decreasing your tobacco and alcohol intake is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of developing oral, head, and neck cancer. If you are a frequent user of tobacco, you should talk to your doctor about getting screened. Head and neck cancer screenings are usually quick, painless, and minimally invasive. If anything, unusual is detected, your doctor will follow up with further testing.

Revere Health’s Ear Nose, and Throat (ENT) specialists offer high-quality care for disorders of the mouth, head, and neck. If you think you are at risk of developing this type of cancer, don’t hesitate to schedule an appointment with any of our board-certified physicians. Visit our website to find the closest ENT location near you.

Zahra Nielsen


Zahra Nielsen

Zahra Nielsen currently serves as Revere Health’s Community Relations Specialist. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Science from Utah Valley University with the intention of working with at-risk communities, but she has since found a love for community engagement, volunteerism, and outreach. Since graduating, her career has taken her to non-profit organizations across the country. From Washington D.C, New York, and Salt Lake City, she has had the opportunity to work with notable organizations such as the National Council for Adoption, Volunteers of America, and United Way. After years of working in different areas of community engagement, Zahra has found her niche in writing. She hopes to pursue this creative form of outreach as a way of inspiring community members to be mindful of their well-being and the well-being of others. In her free time, Zahra likes to practice and teach yoga. She also enjoys live theatre, listening to music, and watching endless hours of quirky movies and TV shows with her husband.

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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.