Acute pain and swelling in the throat area can be a warning sign of head and neck cancer. We spoke to Dr Vinay Samuel Gaikwad to know the causes and risk factors associated with the condition. Read on to know everything.

Head and neck cancers (HNCs) are emerging as a major public health burden in India. According to the India Journal of Cancer (2020), HNC cases comprise 30-40% of all cancer cases in the country. HNC is lifestyle-related cancer that may be prevented or cured if detected at an early stage. HNCs are malignant tumors in the upper aerodigestive area which includes the oral, cavity, nasopharynx, oropharynx, and larynx. It affects different parts of the head and throat. Squamous cell carcinoma is the name given to malignancies that develop on the mucosal layer’s surface. The throat, voice box, sinus, nasal cavity, salivary glands, oral cavity, tongue, lips, gums, roof of the mouth, and nose are all places where this type of cancer can occur.

What causes HNCs?

There are various reasons for neck and head cancers. One of the greatest causes of HNCs is oral hygiene which is due to the consumption of tobacco and alcohol. 86.5% of HNC patients, in India, were reported as tobacco consumers while 23.2% were consuming alcohol, according to the Indian Journal of Cancer (2020). Tobacco products such as cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco cause cancer and, consuming alcoholic beverages such as beer and wine might exacerbate the problem.

Long-term exposure to UV rays has been linked as the leading cause of lip cancer. Occupational exposure to chemicals or substances such as dust, wood, smoke, asbestos, formaldehyde, and others are some of the factors. Toxic gases are inhaled by road construction workers while working can also cause head and neck cancer. Radiation exposure for non-cancerous illnesses could also be the cause of malignant conditions soon.

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What are the signs & symptoms of HNCs?

Different parts of the head and the neck show different signs of cancer.

Voice box

The voice box helps us in producing sounds. If the person is facing difficulty in speaking or breathing, discomfort or pain while swallowing then there could be a possibility that it might be a sign of head and neck cancer. The pain in the ear may be a sign of malignancy too. It is important that the person showing these signs should visit a doctor for a checkup.

Oral Cavity

Some symptoms might be visible in the oral cavity that includes teeth, tongue, the roof of the mouth, and the jaw. The person might experience red or white patches on the gums, tongue, mouth lining, even enlargement of the jaw, bleeding, or pain in the mouth. These symptoms must not be ignored, and one must immediately visit the doctor as these could lead to serious health concerns


Swelling and pain in the throat region are early signs of throat cancer. Patients might experience pain in the ear and difficulty in hearing due to throat cancer.

Nasal Cavity/Sinus

Blocked sinuses or recurrent sinus infections is a sign of nasal cancer. Nasal bleeding, eye pain or infections and, even dental problems can all be indicators of sinus cancer.

Salivary Glands

Swelling of the jawbones, chronic numbness in the face muscles, chin, and neck are symptoms that you should get your salivary glands checked by a doctor.

These are a few parts where HNCs show prominent symptoms. Patients with these signs must not wait and get themselves treated at the earliest. One of the problems of HNC in India is a lack of awareness. People do not visit the doctor at an early stage when the treatment is most effective.

How to reduce the risks of HNCs?

As a preventive measure people can follow some healthy lifestyle habits to avoid HNC. It is true that the cause of HNCs may be genetic, but a healthy lifestyle can help in avoiding a lot of diseases including HNCs.

Some precautions that can be taken to minimize the chances of HNC are:

  1. Quit smoking. Cancer has long been associated with smoking. The smoke is toxic not only to the throat and nasal cavity but also to the lungs. Repeated exposure to the smoke can increase chances of cancer to avoid stop smoking as early as possible. Using other tobacco products like chewing tobacco can increase the risk.
  2. HPV infections are also contributing factors for oropharyngeal cancers. Getting HPV vaccination can also reduce the risk of getting cancer. Also practicing safe sex habits to avoid HPV is advised.
  3. Using lip balms with SPF can prevent the chances of lip cancers. Minimizing exposure from UV rays will ensure maximum protection.
  4. Regular dental checkups not only ensure good oral hygiene but can detect any early signs of cancers and thus become easier to treat.

How to treat HNCs?

Treatment of head and neck cancers includes immunotherapy, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or a combination of treatments. Treatment of cancer also depends on the factors like-

  • Age of the person
  • Atage of cancer (early or late stage)
  • Location of cancer
  • The current medical condition of the person infected with cancer
  • Being HPV positive can lead to early detection and better chances of treatment.

Treatments should be carried out in a careful and considered manner. Surgeries can affect the person’s talking, chewing, and swallowing abilities. Radiation therapy can cause dry mouth, sores in the mouth, swelling, irritation, or even loss of taste.

The recovery after the treatment varies from one patient to the other. Some patients have fewer side effects while some may suffer long-term side effects of radiation therapy. If a patient experiences any side effects, they must immediately discuss with the specialist for better treatment procedures.


The most important tip to avoid HNCs is to stop the consumption of tobacco and alcohol. Good oral hygiene will go a long way along with getting timely checkups for HPV. Also, protecting oneself from radiation and UV rays can be beneficial in avoiding HNCs.

In case you observe signs and symptoms for any of above-mentioned cancer it is advised to contact an oncologist at the earliest. Remember early detection of head and neck cancer will improve chances of recovery and reduce the chances of fatality.

This post first appeared on The Health Site

Last Updated on August 26, 2021 by shalw

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