Head and neck cancers: detection and prevention

April 04, 2023 | by Oh Hoon Kwon, M.D.

Approximately 4% of all cancers in the United States are cancers of the head and neck, according to the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute. Head and neck cancers are typically diagnosed in people over the age of 40 and survival rates vary greatly depending on the type and stage of cancer detected.

These cancers usually begin in the mucosal surfaces inside the head and neck and are often squamous cell carcinomas. Head and neck cancers may also be detected in the salivary glands. While uncommon, there are many different types of salivary gland cancers.

Early signs and symptoms of head and neck cancers

Unfortunately, there’s no screening test currently available that detects cancers of the head and neck, but there are many signs that warrant attention:

  • Swelling or a sore in the mouth that doesn’t heal
  • Hoarseness
  • Sore throat or pain in the throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Unexplained nosebleeds
  • Nasal stuffiness or drainage
  • Red or white patch in mouth
  • Foul odor coming from the mouth
  • Dentures that don’t fit as well as they once did
  • Unexplained loose teeth
  • Swollen glands unrelated to a virus or infection
  • A mass in the mouth, throat or neck

More advanced cases of head and neck cancer may include these additional symptoms:

  • Intense pain in the mouth, throat or nasal cavities
  • Weight loss
  • Narrowed airway

Regular dental checkups help identify early signs. Your dentist plays a key role in the identification of cancers of the head and neck. Be sure to get regular checkups and ask your hygienist and dentist to take a close look at your mouth and tongue. These health professionals have a unique opportunity to do a detailed exam and detect abnormalities during regular visits.

If you or a loved one experiences any of these symptoms, or if your dentist identifies a concern, it’s important to discuss it with your primary care physician.

Risk factors for head and neck cancers

Certain lifestyle choices can lead to an increased risk of developing various cancers, including those of the head and neck. Avoid the following to decrease your chance of developing these cancers:

  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Chewing tobacco
  • Heavy daily alcohol intake

Head and neck cancers and human papilloma virus (HPV)

A notable increase of otherwise healthy, middle-aged individuals are presenting with head and neck cancers caused by a high-risk type of HPV.

Spread through skin-to-skin contact and sexual activity, HPV is a virus that infects the skin and lining of the mouth, throat, genitals and anal area. Over 14 million people are infected each year, including teenagers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Most often, the body’s immune system fights this infection on its own and treatment is not needed, however, in some cases, HPV can lead to cancer in both women and men.

An HPV vaccine is available to people aged 9 to 26 and recommended for protection against various types of HPV, including the types that can cause cancer. The CDC recommends children get the vaccine at the age of 11 or 12, so they’re protected before becoming sexually active. Your pediatrician or primary care physician can provide more information and administer the vaccine.

The bottom line. Head and neck cancers are preventable in many cases, through behavioral changes and the HPV vaccine. Don’t smoke or chew tobacco, limit alcohol intake and consider the HPV vaccine to keep risk factors low. If you do experience a symptom listed above, reach out to your doctor right away.

Learn more about cancer care at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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