Symptoms of mouth and oropharyngeal cancer

Symptoms of mouth and oropharyngeal Open a glossary item cancer include:

  • ulcers that don't heal
  • pain in your mouth
  • red or white patches in your mouth or throat
  • difficulty swallowing
  • speech problems
  • a lump in your neck
  • weight loss
  • bad breath

There are many other conditions that cause these symptoms. Most of them are much more common than mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. But it is important to get these symptoms checked by a doctor or dentist. 

You should see your doctor if you have:
  • an ulcer in your mouth that will not heal
  • pain or discomfort in the mouth that will not go away
  • symptoms that are unusual for you
  • symptoms that don't go away

Your symptoms are unlikely to be cancer but it is important to get them checked by a doctor.

Ulcers that do not heal

A broken area in the lining of the mouth (ulcer) that will not heal is a common symptom of mouth cancer.

Pain in your mouth

Pain, discomfort or swelling in your mouth that doesn't go away is the other most common symptom of mouth cancer. 

Red or white patches in the mouth or throat

An abnormal looking patch in your mouth or throat could be a sign of pre cancerous changes or cancer. They can sometimes be painful. 

  • White patches are called leukoplakia.
  • Red patches are called erythroplakia. 

These patches are not cancer, but if left untreated they may lead to cancer. 

Red and white patches in the mouth can also be caused by a fungal infection called thrush. The white patches usually rub off, leaving a sore red patch underneath. If you have anti fungal treatment, and the patches go away, they are not related to cancer. 

Difficulty swallowing

Mouth cancer can cause pain or a burning sensation when chewing and swallowing food. Or you might feel like your food is sticking in your throat. Difficulty swallowing can also be caused by a narrowing of the food pipe (oesophagus). 

Speech problems

Cancer in your mouth or throat can affect your voice. Your voice might sound different. It may be quieter, husky, or sound as if you have a cold all the time. Or you might slur some of your words, or have trouble with pronouncing some sounds. 

A lump in your neck

You may have a lump in your neck caused by an enlarged lymph node. Swelling in one or more lymph nodes in the neck is a common symptom of mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. 

A hot red painful lump usually means an infection, rather than a cancer. Lumps that come and go are not usually due to cancer. Cancer usually forms a lump that slowly gets bigger. 

Weight loss

Weight loss is a common symptom of many different types of cancer. Mouth and oropharyngeal cancer can make it painful to eat and difficult to swallow. This might cause weight loss. 

Extreme weight loss (when you are not dieting) can be a sign of advanced cancer. 

Bad breath

Most people have bad breath at some point in their life and it is not cancer. But if you have cancer, bad breath might be worse and happen more often. 

Other symptoms

These can include one or more of the following:

  • a lump or thickening of your lip 
  • a lump in your mouth or throat 
  • unusual bleeding or numbness in your mouth 
  • loose teeth for no clear reason 
  • difficulty moving your jaw 
  • a sore throat that does not get better after a few days 
  • pain in your ear that does not get better in a few days 
  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    Tobias J and Hochhauser D
    Blackwell, 2015

  • Suspected cancer: recognition and referral
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, 2015 (updated January 2021)

  • Scottish cancer referral guidelines 
    The Scottish Government, January 2019

  • Oropharyngeal cancer: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines
    H Mehanna and others 
    The Journal of Laryngology and Otology, 2016. Volume 130, supplement S2, pages S90-S96

  • Head and Neck Cancer:United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines

    V Paleri and N Roland

    The Journal of Laryngology & Otology, 2016. Volume 130,  Supplement 2

  • Mouth Cancer for Clinicians Part 8: Referral

    N Kalavrezos and C Scully

    Oral Medicine

    Dental Update 2016, Volume 43, Pages 176–185

Last reviewed: 
24 Aug 2021
Next review due: 
24 Aug 2024

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