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What are the symptoms?

In their early stages, head and neck cancers may have no symptoms. When symptoms do occur, the most common symptom is a lump in the neck (caused by cancer that has spread to a lymph node). There are many other possible symptoms. 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
  • pain when swallowing
  • a persistent sore or swelling in the mouth, or the area not healing after having a tooth extracted
  • a sore throat that doesn’t get better
  • unusual bleeding or numbness in the mouth
  • red or white patches on the gums, tongue or mouth
  • bad breath
  • changes in speech or trouble pronouncing words
  • difficulty chewing or swallowing food or moving the tongue
  • weight loss
  • loose teeth, or dentures that no longer fit
  • earache

Symptoms can include:

  • a lump in the neck
  • a persistent sore throat or cough
  • difficulty swallowing or opening the mouth wide
  • coughing up bloody mucus
  • bad breath
  • weight loss
  • voice changes or hoarseness
  • dull pain around the neck
  • earache
  • feeling that your air supply is blocked
  • numb face
  • a blocked nose
  • hearing loss
  • headache

Symptoms can include:

  • a persistent change in the sound of your voice, including hoarseness
  • a sore throat that doesn’t get better
  • difficulty swallowing or pain when swallowing
  • coughing all the time
  • difficulty breathing
  • weight loss
  • pain in the ear

Symptoms can include:

  • reduced sense of smell
  • a persistent blocked nose or ear
  • frequent nosebleeds
  • lots of mucus in the throat or back of nose
  • frequent headaches or sinus pressure
  • difficulty swallowing
  • loose or painful upper teeth
  • a lump on or in the face, nose or mouth
  • numb face, upper lip or inside mouth
  • pressure or pain in ears
  • a bulging or watery eye
  • double vision or complete or partial loss of eyesight

Symptoms can include:

  • swelling or a lump near the ear, jaw or lip, or inside the mouth
  • left and right sides of the face or neck looking different (asymmetry)
  • drooping, numbness or muscle weakness on one side of the face (palsy)

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.

Health professionals you may see

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 immunotherapy (systemic 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)
nurseadministers drugs and provides care, information and support throughout treatment
speech pathologistevaluates and treats communication, voice and swallowing difficulties during and after treatment
dietitianhelps with nutrition concerns and recommends changes to diet during treatment and recovery
social workerlinks you and your family to support services and helps you with emotional, practical and financial issues
counsellor, psychologisthelp you manage your emotional response to diagnosis and treatment
physiotherapist, exercise physiologisthelp restore movement and mobility, and improve fitness and wellbeing; physiotherapists also help with breathing and airway clearance and managing lymphoedema
occupational therapistassists in adapting your living and working environment to help you resume usual activities after treatment
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander liaison officerif you identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, supports you and your family during treatment and recovery

Featured resources

Head and Neck Cancers - Your guide to best cancer care

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last updated September 2021 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Richard Gallagher, Head and Neck Surgeon, Director of Cancer Services and Head and Neck Cancer Services, St Vincent’s Health Network, NSW; Dr Sophie Beaumont, Head of Dental Oncology, Dental Practitioner, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Bena Brown, Speech Pathologist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, and Senior Research Fellow, Menzies School of Health Research, QLD; Dr Teresa Brown, Assistant Director, Nutrition and Dietetics, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Lisa Castle-Burns, Head and Neck Cancer Specialist Nurse, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, The Canberra Hospital, ACT; A/Prof Ben Chua, Radiation Oncologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, GenesisCare Rockhampton and Brisbane, QLD; Elaine Cook, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Dr Andrew Foreman, Specialist Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Tony Houey, Consumer; Dr Annette Lim, Medical Oncologist and Clinician Researcher – Head and Neck and Non-melanoma Skin Cancer, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and The University of Melbourne, VIC; Paula Macleod, Head, Neck and Thyroid Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Northern Sydney Cancer Centre, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Dr Aoife McGarvey, Physiotherapist and Accredited Lymphoedema Practitioner, Physio Living, Newcastle, NSW; Rick Pointon, Consumer; Teresa Simpson, Senior Clinician, Psycho-Oncology Social Work Service, Cancer Therapy Centre, Liverpool Hospital, NSW.