Head and Neck Cancer
 

 

 

 

 

 

What Problems Do Head and Neck Cancers Cause?

Cancers of the head and neck include cancers that start in several places in the head and throat, not including brain cancers or cancers of the eye.

These cancers can startó

In the sinuses (the spaces around the nose on the inside of the skull).
Inside and behind the nose.
In the mouth, including the tongue, the gums, and the roof of the mouth.
In the back of the mouth and the throat (pharynx), which includes three sections called the nasopharynx, oropharynx, and hypopharynx.
In the larynx (voice box).
On the lips, although cancer on the lips is a type of skin cancer.
In the glands that make saliva for the mouth, but those are relatively rare.

To lower your risk for head and neck cancers, donít use tobacco products, limit the amount of alcohol you drink, and avoid indoor tanning.

What Causes Head and Neck Cancers?

Alcohol and tobacco are major risk factors for cancers of the head and neck. All tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco, snuff, or a type of chewing tobacco called betel quid) are linked to head and neck cancer (except for salivary gland cancers). Drinking any type of alcohol, such as beer, wine, or liquor, also raises the risk of getting cancers of the mouth, throat, and voice box.

About 70% of cancers in the oropharynx (which includes the tonsils, soft palate, and base of the tongue) are linked to human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted virus.

Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure, such as exposure to the sun or artificial UV rays like tanning beds, is a major cause of cancer on the lips.

Occupational exposures, or being exposed to certain substances while on the job, can increase the risk of getting cancers in the nasopharynx. Working in the construction, textile, ceramic, logging, and food processing industries can cause people to be exposed to substances like wood dust, formaldehyde, asbestos, nickel, and other chemicals.

An infection with the Epstein-Barr virus, a cause of infectious mononucleosis and other illnesses, can raise the risk of cancers in the nose, behind the nose, and cancers of the salivary glands.

Radiation treatments to the head and neck can cause head and neck cancers.

About twice as many men as women get head and neck cancers. They are more likely to be diagnosed in people who are over 50 years of age.

What Are the Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancers?

In the mouth, cancer can causeó

A white or red sore that does not heal on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth.
Swelling in the jaw.
Unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth. A lump or thickening.
Problems with dentures.

At the back of the mouth (pharynx), cancer can causeó

Trouble breathing or speaking.
A lump or thickening.
Trouble chewing or swallowing food.
A feeling that something is caught in the throat. Pain in the throat that wonít go away.
Pain or ringing in the ears or trouble hearing.

In the voice box (larynx), cancer can causeó

Pain when swallowing.
Ear pain.

In the sinuses and nasal cavity, cancer can causeó

Blocked sinuses that donít clear.
Sinus infections that do not respond to treatment with antibiotics.
Bleeding through the nose.
Headaches.
Pain and swelling around the eyes.
Pain in the upper teeth.
Problems with dentures.

How Can I Reduce My Risk for Head and Neck Cancers?

You can lower your risk of getting head and neck cancer in several waysó

Donít smoke. If you smoke, quit. Quitting smokingexternal icon lowers the risk for cancer.
Donít use smokeless tobacco products.
Limit the amount of alcohol you drink.
Talk to your doctor about HPV vaccination. The HPV vaccine can prevent new infections with the types of HPV that most often cause oropharyngeal and other cancers. Vaccination is recommended only for people at certain ages.
Use condoms during oral sex, which may help lower the chances of giving or getting HPV.
Use lip balm that contains sunscreen, wear a wide-brimmed hat when outdoors, and avoid indoor tanning.
Visit the dentist regularly. Checkups often can find head and neck cancers early, when they are easier to treat.

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