Skip to content

What are the symptoms?

In their early stages, head and neck cancers may have no symptoms. There are many possible symptoms when they do occur. However, these symptoms can also occur with other illnesses, so they don’t necessarily mean you have cancer – only tests can confirm the diagnosis. If you are concerned about any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your general practitioner (GP) without delay.

Symptoms can include:

  • Mouth pain or pain when swallowing
  • a persistent sore or swelling in the mouth
  • unusual bleeding or numbness in the mouth
  • red or white patches on the gums, tongue or mouth
  • bad breath
  • changes in speech or difficulty pronouncing words
  • difficulty chewing or swallowing food, difficulty moving the tongue, or limited chewing
  • weight loss
  • a lump in the neck
  • loose teeth, or dentures that no longer fit
  • earache or ringing in the ears

Symptoms can include:

  • decreased sense of smell
  • a persistent blocked nose, particularly in one nostril, or a blocked ear
  • frequent nosebleeds
  • excess mucus in the throat or back of nose
  • frequent headaches or sinus pressure
  • difficulty swallowing
  • loose or painful upper teeth
  • a lump on/in the face, nose or mouth
  • numbness of the face, upper lip, or within the mouth or upper teeth
  • pressure or pain in the ears
  • a bulging or watery eye
  • double vision
  • complete or partial loss of eyesight

Symptoms can include:

  • swelling or a lump near the ear, jaw or lip, or inside the mouth
  • different appearance on each side of the face or neck
  • difficulty swallowing or widely opening the mouth
  • drooping numbness or muscle weakness on one side of the face (palsy)

Symptoms can include:

  • throat pain or difficulty swallowing
  • a persistent sore throat or cough
  • coughing up bloody phlegm
  • bad breath
  • weight loss
  • voice changes or hoarseness
  • dull pain around the breastbone
  • a lump in the neck
  • pain in the ear or frequent ear infections
  • feeling that you air supply is blocked
  • numbness of the face
  • nasal congestion
  • hearing loss
  • headache

Symptoms can include:

  • swelling or a lump in the neck or throat
  • a persistent sore throat
  • a persistent change in the sound of your voice, including hoarseness
  • difficulty swallowing or pain when swallowing
  • constant coughing
  • difficulty breathing
  • weight loss
  • pain in the ear

Which health professionals will I see?

Your GP will arrange the first tests to assess your symptoms. If these tests do not rule out cancer, you will usually be referred to a specialist, who will arrange further tests. If head and neck cancer is diagnosed, the specialist will consider treatment options. Often these will be discussed with other health professionals at what is known as a multidisciplinary team (MDT) meeting.

During and after treatment, you will see a range of health professionals who specialise in different aspects of your care. It is recommended that complex head and neck cancer is treated in a specialist centre. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for information about specialist centres for head and neck cancer in your area.
You can also ask Cancer Council about assistance that may be available if you have to travel a long way for treatment.

ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialisttreats disorders of the ear, nose and throat
head and neck surgeondiagnoses and treats cancers of the head and neck; may be an ENT, general, plastic, or oral and maxillofacial surgeon
oral and maxillofacial surgeontreats disorders of the mouth, face and jaws
reconstructive (plastic) surgeonperforms surgery that restores, repairs or reconstructs the body’s appearance and function
dentist or oral medicine specialistevaluates and treats the mouth and teeth, which can be affected by cancer treatment
radiation oncologisttreats cancer by prescribing and overseeing a course of radiation therapy
medical oncologisttreats cancer with drug therapies such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy and hormone therapy (systemic treatment)
nurseadministers drugs and provides care, information and support throughout treatment
cancer care coordinatorcoordinates your care, liaises with MDT members, and supports you throughout treatment; may be a clinical nurse consultant (CNC) or clinical nurse specialist (CNS)
speech pathologistevaluates and treats communication, voice and swallowing difficulties during and after treatment
dietitianrecommends an eating plan to follow while you are in treatment and recovery
social workerlinks you to support services and helps you with emotional, practical and financial issues
counsellor, psychologisthelp you manage your emotional response to diagnosis and treatment
physiotherapist, occupational therapistassist with physical and practical problems, including restoring movement and mobility after treatment, helping with breathing and airway clearance, and recommending aids and equipment

This information is reviewed by

This information was last updated September 2019 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof David Wiesenfeld, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon, Director, Head and Neck Tumour Stream, The Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre at Melbourne Health, VIC; Alan Bradbury, Consumer; Dr Ben Britton, Senior Clinical and Health Psychologist, John Hunter Hospital, NSW; Dr Madhavi Chilkuri, Radiation Oncologist, Townsville Cancer Centre, The Townsville Hospital, QLD; Jedda Clune, Senior Dietitian (Head and Neck Cancer), Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA; Dr Fiona Day, Staff Specialist, Medical Oncology, Calvary Mater Newcastle, and Conjoint Senior Lecturer, The University of Newcastle, NSW; Dr Ben Dixon, ENT, Head and Neck Surgeon, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; Emma Hair, Senior Social Worker, St George Hospital, NSW; Rosemerry Hodgkin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Kara Hutchinson, Head and Neck Cancer Nurse Coordinator, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; A/Prof Julia Maclean, Speech Pathologist, St George Hospital, NSW; Prof Jane Ussher, Chair, Women’s Health Psychology, Translational Health Research Institute (THRI), School of Medicine, Western Sydney University, NSW; Andrea Wong, Physiotherapist, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC..