The incidence of head and neck cancers in patients with an initial presentation of deep neck infection is unclear and may be underestimated. Thus, the aim of this study was to assess the incidence of head and neck cancers initially manifested as deep neck infection. Also, the possible risk factors and pathophysiology are discussed. This study was a retrospective medical chart review in a tertiary referral center. A total of 81 consecutive patients admitted with a diagnosis of deep neck infection over a 46-month period were analyzed. The demographic data, physical examinations, laboratory findings, radiographic studies, and pathology report were analyzed. Among the 81 deep neck infection patients, head and neck cancers were histologically demonstrated in four patients (4.9%) with the initial symptom of a painful neck mass. The incidence of head and neck cancer initially manifested as deep neck infection was found to increase in patients aged over 40 years (6.7%; 3/45 vs. 2.8%; 1/36). A detailed history of all patients with deep neck infection should be taken. Furthermore, endoscopic examination, thyroid examination and routine pathological examination should be performed, especially in those aged over 40. Also, careful explanation to the patient and his/her family about the possibility of underlying head and neck cancer (incidence 1-5%) may be needed. If the neck swelling diminishes, but does not disappear completely after full course of antibiotics, repeated fine needle aspiration, endoscopy, or image study should be considered.
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