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Signs and Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer

Given below are the major signs and symptoms of some of the cancers that come under the head and neck cancer category:

  1. Mouth cancer

It is the most common kind of head and neck cancer. It may affect the tongue, lips, cheeks, floor or roof of the mouth and gums. The sign and symptoms of mouth cancer are the formations of lumps in the mouth and persistent mouth ulcers.

  1. Laryngeal cancer

This cancer is developed in the larynx. The common symptoms of this cancer include breathlessness, changes in the voice, noisy breathing, persistent cough and difficulty in swallowing.

  1. Throat cancer

This cancer includes cancer of the back throat, oropharynx, hypopharynx, windpipe and nasopharynx. The most common signs of this type of cancer are a persistent sore throat or pumps in the throat.

  1. Salivary gland cancer

The major symptom of observing salivary gland cancer is swelling or lump or swelling on the jaw, neck or mouth. However, these lumps are non-cancerous. Other symptoms may include drooping on one side of your face or numbness on your face.

  1. Nose and sinus cancer

The symptoms of nose and sinus cancer include sinusitis, common cold, blocked nose, reduced sense of smell and nosebleeds.

General Signs and Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer:

1. Weakness or pain in the face: The discomfort and pain are persistent, especially in case of mouth or salivary gland cancer.

2. Neck Pain: Swelling or small painless lumps in front of the neck.

3. Difficulty in Moving the Jaw: The tumour developed in muscles, nerves and bones of the jaw causes difficulty in opening the mouth.

4. Difficulty in Swallowing: Due to cancer, there is a burning sensation while swallowing and chewing food. The food seems to be stuck in the throat.

5. Speech Problems: The voice sounds huskier as if the person has caught a cold all the time. Due to the tumour, there is also a problem in the speech.

6. Hearing Loss or Ear Pain: Tumour developed in the head and neck region may lead to ear pain or hearing loss.

7. Trouble Breathing: The patients feel nasal congestion in case of sinus cancer and also observe frequent nosebleeds.

8. White or Red Patches in Mouth: There is the appearance of abnormal looking white patches, also called leukoplakia, and red patches, also called erythroplakia.

Other Symptoms:

  • Persistent Foul mouth odour (halitosis)
  • Loosening of dentures or teeth
  • Lump formation in the head or neck area – it may or may not be painful
  • Persistent nasal congestion or nasal obstruction
  • Noisy breathing or breathlessness due to air obstruction
  • Neuropathic pain at distant sites from the location of the tumours
  • Non-healing ulcer in either head or neck region
  • Persistent cough with blood
  • Weakness or numbness in head and neck region
  • Globus sensation
  • Sensory changes (like loss of taste and smell or double vision)
  • Other symptoms like unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite, fever and fatigue.

Causes of Head and Neck Cancer:

Every year, around 10,000 cases of head and neck cancer are diagnosed worldwide. Smoking, chewing tobacco and drinking alcohol are the most common risk factors for developing head and neck cancers.

Around 85% of head and neck cancers are associated with tobacco usage. So, people who use both tobacco and alcohol are at higher risk of developing these cancers compared to people who either use tobacco or drink alcohol alone.

Currently identified causes of Head and Neck Cancer include

  • Use of tobacco – both smoke and smokeless tobacco
  • Viruses like Epstein-Barr and HPV
  • Excessive alcohol consumption

Other factors that may increase Risk of Head and Neck Cancer:

  • Poor hygiene of the oral cavity
  • Sun exposure, especially of lip
  • Possible HPV infection
  • Salivary glands infections
  • Radiation therapy to the head and neck by coming in contact with diagnostic x-rays
  • Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity exposed to wood or nickel dust inhalation
  • Consuming certain salted food or preservatives
  • Use of mouthwash containing high alcohol content
  • Hypopharynx Plummer-Vinson (also called Paterson-Kelly) syndrome. It is a rare disorder that is caused due to nutritional and iron deficiencies. This syndrome is typically characterized by the severe form of anaemia that leads to problem or difficulty in swallowing when webs of tissue begin to grow across the oesophagus.
  • Occupational exposure to certain airborne particles of asbestos
  • People who chew paan (betel quid) are also at higher risk of head and neck cancers, particularly oral cancer

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