Are There Early Symptoms for Head and Neck Cancer? | Neck Cancer Symptoms

Are There Early Symptoms for Head and Neck Cancer?

Any kind of cancer can be scary. But when it comes to cancer with the head and neck, it can seem like there are no warning signs to watch out for. 

The symptoms of head and neck cancer can affect certain parts of the nose, sinuses, larynx, throat, and mouth. Often, the malignant growths are found in the epithelium above the mucous membranes of the different neck and head structures. This can then lead to symptoms in the immediate area. 

These symptoms can vary.  Many of the signs of head and neck cancer can be due to other less complicated conditions. 

That’s why it’s important to keep an eye out for any health changes that may appear or seem out of the ordinary. Keep reading to learn more about head and neck cancer and warning signs you may want to be on the lookout for. 

Head and Neck Cancer Symptoms

Like most other cancers, having cancer that’s located in the head and neck can be cured if it’s caught early enough. The good news is, most neck and head cancers exhibit early signs. 

But you need to know what these early signs are so you can let your doctor at Chicago ENT know as soon as possible. Successfully treating neck and head cancer relies on early detection. 

Knowing these symptoms can help save your life. Here are some of the signs:

Swelling in the Mouth 

A painless growth or sore in the mouth that doesn’t go away could be a sign of tongue or mouth cancers. There might be bleeding, but that won’t usually occur until later stages of cancer. 

If you have any swelling in your mouth that doesn’t disappear in a week, you need to see your doctor sooner than later. 

You Have Trouble Swallowing

Cancer of the esophagus or throat can make it harder to swallow solid foods and even liquids. Whenever you eat, the food may end up getting stuck or go through your stomach, only to come right back up. 

If you find that you’re having difficulty anytime you swallow something, you need to see your doctor as soon as possible. If esophageal cancer is what’s suspected, your doctor may perform a physical exam. 

They may also use tests like an upper endoscopy or an endoscopic ultrasound. These tests allow your doctor to see the lining of the esophagus, and may also be used to get a tissue sample from the lymph nodes.

Lump in the Neck

a neck lump being inspected.

For cancers that start either in the neck or head, it’s common to see them spread to the lymph nodes in your neck first. If you have a lump in your neck that lasts for over two weeks, let your doctor know. 

This is not normal. Although all lumps are not cancer, having a lump in your neck for this period of time could be something else of concern. 

This could be something else entirely like a growth or a benign tumor. It could also be a different kind of cancer like cancer of the thyroid gland, mouth cancer, throat cancer, blood cancers, or cancer in your voice box. This kind of lump could be painless but it will continue to get larger steadily over time. 

Bringing up Blood While Coughing or Unusual Bleeding

Tumors in the mouth, throat, lungs, or nose can cause bleeding. If you spot blood in your phlegm or saliva for more than a couple of days, let your doctor know as soon as you can. 

Seeing some blood when you blow your nose is one thing but if you cough and see blood for several days in a row, this is something that should cause concern.

Skin Changes

Three major types of skin cancer affecting layers of the skin.

Malignant melanoma, basal, and squamous cell cancer are types of neck and head cancer. Malignant melanoma exhibits itself as a black or blue-black skin discoloration. 

Any mole that begins to bleed or change color or size could be a sign of malignant melanoma. You should have this looked at by a doctor or a dermatologist. 

Basal cell cancer is one of the most common cancers of the head and neck. Cancer often occurs in areas exposed to the sun like the face and forehead but it can appear anywhere on almost any part of the skin. 

Basal cell cancer starts out as a small, pale patch that gradually becomes bigger. It produces a dimple in the middle and then becomes an ulcer. Although some portions of the ulcer heal, the major area remains ulcerated.

Squamous cell cancers, which look a lot like basal cell cancers, occur mostly on the ear and lower lip. When caught early and treated properly, squamous cell cancers aren’t deadly. If there’s a sore on your ear or lip that doesn’t go away, see your doctor right away. 

Constant Pain in or Around Your Ear 

A woman in distress holding her ears

If you have a persistent earache whenever you swallow this can be a sign of a tumor growing in your throat. This is most concerning if the ear pain is also accompanied by hoarseness, a lump in the neck, or problems swallowing. 

Changing Voice 

Cancers of the larynx can cause your voice to change. Although most voice changes aren’t a result of cancer, it’s best not to take any chances. 

If your voice has turned hoarse for more than two weeks, schedule an appointment with your doctor.

Risk Factors for Developing Neck and Head Cancer

A woman peering into a cup during a sunset.

For most people with neck and head cancers, it’s due to exposure to high-risk activities. Risk factors that increase your chances of developing head and neck cancers include:

  • Prolonged exposure to sunlight, which makes you more likely to develop skin cancer
  • Drinking alcohol, chewing tobacco, smoking cigars, or smoking cigarettes increases your risk of developing tongue, throat, mouth, or voice box cancer
  • If you don’t drink or smoke, throat cancer can be caused by HPV (Human Papillomavirus)  

Early Detection of Head and Neck Cancer

At Chicago ENT, our multispecialty team of surgeons collaboratively assesses a patient’s symptoms. After confirming a head or neck cancer diagnosis, we develop a highly individualized treatment plan for the best results. 

For many of our patients, this means non-invasive surgical methods combined with virtual real-time computer scans. This allows our surgeons to remove tumors without the need for more invasive procedures, and more importantly, it lets patients get back to their lives more quickly. 

Chicago ENT is at the forefront for head and cancer treatments, with our medical director Dr. Michael Friedman who recently published articles that highlight new techniques to reconstruct the larynx and trachea. 

Concerned about potential head or neck cancer symptoms? Schedule an appointment with the experts at Chicago ENT to come up with a treatment plan that will work for you and let you get back to living your life! 


Chicago ENT has six convenient locations throughout the greater Chicago area. For the exact location and/or directions, simply click on the map next to your desired location. To book an appointment, call 773-296-5500 to speak to a scheduler or conveniently online 24/7.

Advanced Center for Specialty Care
3000 N. Halsted Street, Suite #400
Chicago, IL  60657

Phone: 773-296-5500

Office hours:
Monday 8:30 am – 5:00 pm
Tuesday 8:30 am – 5:00 pm
Wednesday 8:30 am – 5:00 pm
Thursday 8:30 am – 5:00 pm
Friday 8:30 am – 5:00 pm
Saturday 9:00 am – 12:00 pm

Allergy Shot Clinic hours:
Monday 8:30 am -4 pm
Tuesday 8:30 am - 1:30 pm
Wednesday 12:00 pm - 3:30 pm
Thursday 9:30 am – 12:00 pm
Friday 8:30 am - 1:00 pm
Saturday 9 am- 11:30 am
*Shot appointments are by appointment only
*All patient’s are required to wait 30 minutes after receiving allergy shot(s)

Map of the Chicago ENT Lincoln Park Location

St. Mary’s Hospital Professional Building
2222 W. Division Street,
Suite #330
Chicago, IL  60622

Phone: 773-296-5500
Map of the Chicago ENT Bucktown Location

8930 Gross Point Road,
Suite #700
Skokie, IL 60077

Phone: 773-262-4110
Map of the Chicago ENT Skokie Location

2740 W. Foster,
Suite #405
Chicago, IL 60625

Phone: 773-296-5500
Map of the Chicago ENT Chicago North Location

2522 W. Peterson Avenue
Chicago, IL 60659

Phone: 773-262-4110
Map of the Chicago ENT Peterson Location

St. Joseph Ascension Health Outpatient Pavilion
2845 N. Sheridan Rd,
Suite #807
Chicago, IL 60657

Phone: 773-296-5500
Map of the Chicago ENT Lakeview Location