Neck lumps: when are they cancerous?

Written by: Professor Stuart Winter
Edited by: Robert Smith

Neck lumps are not just unsightly, but they can potentially be dangerous. With over 12,000 cases of neck cancer each year in the UK alone, they can feel concerning. Symptoms that often accompany neck lumps include discomfort or irritation, trouble swallowing, numbness, or fatigue.


We recently spoke with Professor Stuart Winter, a highly experienced consultant ENT surgeon who focuses on the treatment of neck lumps, to discuss how you can tell if they’re benign or cancerous. If you’re experiencing neck lumps (or other symptoms associated with them), we recommend having a read of this latest article to find out the answers to some FAQs related to this common but concerning phenomenon.

How common are neck lumps?

They are extremely common.

Are most neck lumps cancerous?

In adults there is a possibility that a neck lump is a form of cancer. This is much less likely in children. Therefore, in adults it is advisable to see a specialist as soon as possible.

What else could a neck lump be?

There are a large number of causes of a neck lump, not cancer. These include lymph nodes that increase in size due to infection, salivary glands that have become inflamed, or due to a blocked drainage pathway.

Do cancerous neck lumps move?

In general, a cancerous neck lump remains where it is. Most cancerous neck lumps are not painful.

What does a cancerous neck lump feel like?

It is very hard to generalise. If it is an advanced cancer however, the lump will usually feel hard and have an irregular edge. However, it is much better to diagnose a cancer before it reaches this stage, as they are much more treatable.

Can the location of a neck lump suggest cancer?

Not really.

When should I talk to a doctor about my neck lump?

The general advice is to see a doctor if the lump has been there for more than three weeks, but in any case, if you are concerned, see a doctor.

How does a doctor examine neck lumps?

The initial examination, involves examining the neck, but you also need a comprehensive examination of your nose, mouth and throat. This is best done by an experienced ENT doctor. After that, a needle test to take some cells from the lump may be needed. You may also need some imaging investigations, MRI, CT or USS, and you may potentially need to have some blood tests done.

For more information regarding neck lumps, you may like to speak with a leading ENT specialist such as Professor Stuart Winter. Click here to visit his profile and find out more information regarding his practice, including his appointment availability.

By Professor Stuart Winter
Otolaryngology / ENT

Professor Stuart Winter is an experienced consultant ear, nose & throat (ENT) surgeon with a specialist interest in tumours of the head and neck. Based across the major private hospitals in Oxford, Mr Winter runs a full ENT practice for adults and children. He runs a specialist swallowing clinic at the Churchill Hospital. He holds, and has held a number of positions nationally including with NICE, ENT-UK, and is a member of the national Clinical Reference Group (CRG) for complex Head and Neck Cancer.

Originally qualifying from the University of Bristol, Mr Winter completed his surgical training in the south west of England, where he developed an early interest in head and neck cancer. In order to further develop advanced techniques for head and neck cancer and sinus surgery, he spent a year working at the Royal Adelaide Hospital in South Australia. During this time he received a number of awards, including the Lionel College Memorial Fellowship and the Ethicon Travelling Fellowship.

As Consultant Ear, Nose & Throat Surgeon at Oxford University Hospitals, Mr Winter leads an active research program into head and neck cancer, and to date has over 70 publications in peer-reviewed journals. He is regularly invited to speak at national and international conferences and he teaches on a number of local and national courses.

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