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Head and Neck

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The head and neck region of the body provide important structures and functions. Head and neck structures and organs include the:

  • Nasal cavity
  • Paranasal sinuses
  • Oral cavity (mouth) and oropharynx (throat)
  • Salivary glands
  • Nasopharynx (upper throat)
  • Larynx (voice box) and hypopharynx (lower throat)

The nose opens into the nasal cavity. This cavity is a space that runs along the top of the roof of the mouth (the palate, which separates your nose from your mouth) and then turns slightly downward to join the nasopharynx (the upper part of the throat).

The paranasal sinuses are small air-filled spaces in the bones that are connected to the nasal cavity. They are called paranasal because they are around the nose. The different sinuses are named depending on which bones they are in. They include:

  • Maxillary sinuses are in the cheek area, below the eyes on either side of the nose.
  • Frontal sinuses are above the inner eye and eyebrow area.
  • Sphenoid sinuses sit deep behind the nose, between the eyes.
  • Ethmoid sinuses are above the nose, between the eyes.

The oral cavity includes the lips, the inside lining of the lips and cheeks (buccal mucosa), the teeth, the gums, the front two-thirds of the tongue, the floor of the mouth below the tongue, the bony roof of the mouth (hard palate) and the area behind the wisdom teeth.

The oropharynx is the middle part of the throat just behind the oral cavity. It can be seen when your mouth is wide open. It includes the base of the tongue (the back third of the tongue), the soft palate (the back part of the roof of the mouth), the tonsils, and the side and back walls of the throat.

The salivary glands are organs on each side of the face. They make saliva (spit) which keeps the mouth and throat moist and helps with digestion.

The 2 main types of salivary glands are: major and minor. The major salivary glands include the parotid, the submandibular and the sublingual. There are also several hundred minor salivary glands that are too small to see without special lab equipment. These glands are under the lining of the lips and tongue; in the roof of the mouth; and inside the cheeks, nose, sinuses, and larynx (voice box).

The nasopharynx is the upper part of the throat (pharynx) that lies behind the nose. It's a box-like chamber about 1½ inches on each edge. It lies just above the soft part of the roof of the mouth (soft palate) and just in back of the nasal passages.

The larynx is your voice box. It contains the vocal cords, one of the organs that help you speak. It's found in the neck, above the opening of the trachea (windpipe). There, it helps keep food and fluids from entering your trachea. The larynx has 3 parts:

  • The supraglottis is just above the vocal cords. It contains the epiglottis, which is a flap of tissue that closes off the larynx when you swallow.
  • The glottis contains the vocal cords.
  • The subglottis is below the vocal cords.

The hypopharynx is the lower part of the throat (pharynx) that lies right behind your larynx. The hypopharynx is the entrance into the esophagus (the tube that connects your throat to your stomach).

The thymus is a small organ behind the upper part of the breastbone and in front of the heart.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Revised: December 13, 2022

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