Early Symptoms of Mouth & Throat Cancer

In 2009 in the United States, 30,676 cases of oral cavity and oropharynx cancer, and 24,900 cases of laryngeal and pharyngeal cancer were diagnosed, according to the National Cancer Institute. Although certain early symptoms are characteristic, many other health problems can cause symptoms similar to mouth and throat cancer, so it's important to see your doctor for an appropriate diagnosis.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.

General Symptoms

Certain general symptoms are associated with mouth and throat cancer. These include trouble breathing or swallowing, a persistent sore throat, a lump or sore that does not heal, pain or voice changes. For example, you might become hoarse or you might notice volume changes in your voice.

Mouth or Oral Cavity

Red or white patches that develop on the tongue, around the teeth and gums, or on the inside of the cheeks are common symptoms of oral cavity or mouth cancer. The jaw may swell, and unusual pain or bleeding in the mouth may occur. Teeth may be loose, and dentures may no longer fit properly. Sores in the mouth or on the lips may occur. Numbness in the lips or around the chin may also be a symptom of mouth cancer.

Trouble Breathing

If cancer develops at the back of the nose, in the nose or in the sinuses, you may have trouble breathing through the nose. If the cancer develops in the oropharynx, breathing through the nose or mouth may be a problem. As the tumor grows, breathing becomes more difficult.

Trouble Swallowing

Cancer in the oropharyngeal area, the area at the back of the throat, may cause trouble with swallowing. As the tumor grows, a mechanical blockage of the throat may occur.


Glands in the area of the mouth make saliva, the fluid that keeps the mouth moist and helps digest food. If cancer starts in the salivary glands of the mouth, certain symptoms may occur. You may experience swelling around the chin or jaw; dry mouth; numbness; paralysis of the facial muscles; and pain. Swelling may also occur elsewhere in the mouth or throat, leading to problems with breathing and swallowing.

Ear Pain

Ear pain may be an early symptom of either mouth or throat cancer. An earache that does not go away, particularly with antibiotic treatment or ear drops, should be discussed with the doctor. Ringing in the ears may also occur.

Other Symptoms

Bleeding through the nose or mouth, chronic sinus infections, headaches and pain in the eyes may indicate mouth or throat cancer. Problems occur when tumor growth physically blocks normal pathways in the nose, mouth and throat or when growth presses on nerves.