Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Signs and Symptoms

The preventative measures you can take and what to look out for when performing self-exams.

Author: Jasmine Brown

Man suffering from neck or throat issue.

“Head and neck cancers are caused by smoking, heavy alcohol use and the human papilloma virus (HPV).”

Though there is not a comprehensive routine screening for oral, head and neck cancers, there are a several preventative check-ups that can help in detecting cancer in early stages: an annual visit with your primary care physician and a bi-annual dental visit. And then there is you – you can perform self-exams. Check for any changes in what you know is normal.

“Head and neck cancers are caused by smoking, heavy alcohol use and the human papilloma virus (HPV),” said George Yoo, MD, FACS, board-certified otolaryngologist at Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Flint. Dr. Yoo specializes in head and neck surgical oncology.

According to the American Cancer Society, head and neck cancers generally begin forming in the cells that line the nose, mouth or throat. Cancers that start in these cells are called carcinoma. The different types of cancers in the head and neck region are oral cavity (including mouth cancer, tongue cancer, lip cancer and gum cancer), oropharyngeal (including throat cancer, base of tongue cancer, soft palate cancer, and tonsil cancer), nasal cavity (nasal cancer), paranasal sinus, nasopharyngeal (cancer in the nasopharynx, behind the nose), laryngeal (a throat cancer that affects the larynx, which is the voice box) and hypopharyngeal cancers (lower throat cancer, in the hypopharynx and pharynx regions).

HPV and Throat Cancer

There is a strong link between the human papillomavirus infection (HPV) and head and neck cancers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 16,200 men and 3,500 women are diagnosed with HPV-related oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (generally considered throat cancer) each year in the U.S. This means that oropharyngeal cancer has surpassed cervical cancer as the most prevalent disease related to HPV infection.

HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that affects tens of millions of Americans every year. The CDC states that nearly every sexually active man and woman will be diagnosed with HPV sometime in their lives. More than 100 HPV subtypes infect humans, with 20 to 40 subtypes that may cause cancer.

Luckily, there is a vaccine to prevent HPV. The HPV vaccine, also known as Gardasil®, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006 to prevent cervical cancer linked to HPV. In 2018, the FDA approved a supplemental application for Gardasil 9, expanding the vaccine's approved use to include women and men aged 27 through 45 years. Gardasil 9 prevents certain cancers and diseases caused by the nine HPV types covered by the vaccine, including oropharyngeal cancer.

Signs and Symptoms of Oral, Head and Neck Cancers

Signs and symptoms of oral, head and neck cancers vary for each patient. If you notice any of the following, you should see a physician:

  • A sore in the mouth that does not heal
  • Pain in the mouth, neck or throat
  • A lump or mass
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth
  • A persistent sore throat
  • Blocked sinuses that do not clear, or sinus infections that do not go away
  • Nose bleeds
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing
  • Pain while swallowing or ear pain
  • Trouble moving the jaw or tongue
  • Numbness, paralysis, or pain in the face, chin, or neck
  • Swelling around the jaw or under the chin
  • Loosening of the teeth or pain around the teeth or jaw
  • Frequent headaches
  • Voice changes
  • Constant bad breath
  • Swelling or issues with your eyes

“Anyone who has these symptoms should schedule a visit with an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist,” advised Dr. Yoo.

Dr. Yoo specializes in cancers of the larynx, lip and oral cavity (hard palate), nasopharynx, neck, nose, oropharynx (soft palate), salivary gland, sinus, throat, and thyroid, as well as melanoma and skin cancers of the basal and squamous cell.

For more information on oral, head and neck cancer treatment in Flint, or to schedule a consultation with Dr. Yoo, visit karmanos.org/flinthncancer.