Many people know about the most common types of cancer, such as lung, skin and breast, but may lack knowledge of lesser known cancers, many of which are preventable in some way. Increasing public awareness of some less common cancers is the goal of National Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week, held every year the week of April 14-20. Cancer can affect an extremely diverse array of tissues, including bone, skin and glands in the mouth, head and neck. Learning about the symptoms of these cancers can help you detect or prevent disease.

Oral, Head and Neck Cancers

This broad category of cancers generally does not include the brain, but rather all other tissues from the neck upward. These tissues contain highly sensitive areas, such as glands and membranes, that are often exposed to higher levels of pathogens, toxins and other substances through eating and breathing.

Oral, head and neck cancers include:


If you see or feel any unusual changes or experience unexplained discomfort anywhere on your body, seek advice from a doctor. The most common symptoms of oral, head and neck cancers include:

  • Persistent white or red sores or patches in the mouth.
  • A change in the sound of your voice.
  • A persistent sore throat.
  • Earache, particularly when it occurs on only one side.
  • Mouth ulcers that last more than a few weeks.
  • Swelling or a lump anywhere.
  • Pain or numbness anywhere.
  • Nosebleeds.
  • Loose teeth.

Don't immediately panic if you do have any of these symptoms. In most cases there is another, simpler cause.

Risk Factors and Prevention

Risk factors for head and neck cancers include:

  • Alcohol use
  • Tobacco use (smoking, chewing or any other form)
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Excessive sun exposure
  • Chemical exposure
  • Family history of such cancers

Other factors include poor nutrition and bad oral hygiene. Recent studies suggest that high consumption of processed foods can also increase your risk of cancer.

Lifestyle choices and hygiene can play an important part in preventing oral, head and neck cancers. Lower your cancer risk by cutting tobacco products, avoiding excessive alcohol consumption and following a nutritious diet.