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Early Symptoms of Mouth & Throat Cancer

author image Pat Stanfill Edens, PhD,
Pat Stanfill Edens writes on health, cancer and management, and has more than 125 publications to her credit. She is an internationally recognized health care management consultant, with more than 35 years of experience. She writes for reference books, texts, journals and the Web.
Early Symptoms of Mouth & Throat Cancer
Cigarette smoking is linked to oral cancer. Photo Credit Comstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images


Mouth and throat cancer account for 2.9 percent of all new cancer diagnoses, according to the National Cancer Institute. Cancer of the mouth and throat can occur anywhere in the oral cavity, including the lips, salivary glands, tongue and sinuses. Lesions, pain, numbness or functional changes -- such as hoarseness -- should be evaluated if they do not resolve in 2 weeks. Early detection of oral cancer is important, so see your dentist and doctor regularly and contact your doctor if you have any early symptoms of cancer.


Red or white patches are one of the most common signs of early oral cancer. These sores may develop anywhere in the mouth, or on the tongue or lips. A lump or thickening of the soft tissue in the mouth or throat, or a sense something is caught in the throat can also be early symptoms. While it's normal to have sores once in a while, you should become suspicious if the sore, lesion or lump doesn't go away in 2 weeks.

Swelling or Pain

If cancer starts in the salivary glands of the mouth, you may experience swelling around the chin or jaw, as well as dry mouth and pain. Swelling may also occur elsewhere in the mouth or throat, leading to problems with breathing and swallowing. Abnormal bleeding in the mouth or nose, ear pain, frequent headaches or ringing in the ears may be early symptoms of either mouth or throat cancer.

Functional Symptoms

If cancer develops at the back of the nose, in the nose or in the sinuses, you may have trouble breathing through the nose. Cancer in the oropharyngeal area, the area at the back of the throat, may also cause hoarseness or trouble with swallowing or breathing. You may have difficulty moving the jaw or tongue. Your bite may be uncomfortable or uneven, or your dentures may no longer fit properly. Numbness in the lips or tongue may also be a symptom of mouth cancer.


Any lesions, pain, swelling, persistent ear or sinus infections, or any problems with the functioning of the mouth or throat should be evaluated by a dentist or doctor if they do not go away within 2 weeks. If you use tobacco or alcohol regularly, you may be at higher risk of oral cancer, so don't delay getting your symptoms checked. Many of these symptoms can be explained by problems other than cancer, but since early detection of oral cancer is essential to improve survival, make sure your dentist or doctor evaluates any persistent symptoms.

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