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
  • a persistent sore throat
  • having pain or difficulty swallowing
  • speech problems
  • a lump in your neck
  • weight loss
  • bad breath

If you have any of these symptoms you must get them checked by your GP or dentis. But remember, they can all be caused by other conditions. Most people with these symptoms don’t have mouth and oropharyngeal cancer.

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 and include:

  • white patches, also called leukoplakia
  • red patches, also 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. 

A persistent sore throat

A persistent sore throat is a common symptom of oropharyngeal cancer. A sore throat can also be caused by:

  • viral or bacterial infections

  • acid reflux

  • smoking

  • hayfever

Having pain or 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 
  • 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 October 2023)

  • Scottish cancer referral guidelines 
    NHS Scotland, 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 to S96

  • Oral cavity and lip cancer: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines

    C Kerawala and others

    Journal of Laryngology and Otology, 2016. Volume 130, Supplement S2, Pages: S83 to S89

  • Oropharyngeal cancer

    BMJ Best Practice

    Accessed July 2024

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular risk or cause you are interested in.

Last reviewed: 
09 Jul 2024
Next review due: 
09 Jul 2027

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