Intracellular signals along the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR)-Akt-nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kappaB) pathway have been associated with carcinogenesis in various malignant neoplasms. This investigation was to evaluate the expression of EGFR, phosphorylated(p)-Akt and p-NF-kappaB and correlate them with clinical outcomes in patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil. A total of 45 patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil were studied by immunohistochemistry to evaluate the expression levels of EGFR, p-Akt and p-NF-kappaB. Results for squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil were compared with those for associated high-grade dysplasia and adjacent normal appearing epithelium, when present. In addition, tonsillar epithelium from non-neoplastic specimens of age-matched patients also was stained for the same markers. High-grade dysplasia and squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil demonstrated a similar pattern of expression, which differed from the pattern seen in the adjacent normal epithelium and tonsillar epithelium from normal controls (an overexpression for each of these three protein analytes in high-grade dysplasia and squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil as demonstrated by immunohistochemistry). When markers from squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil were correlated with survival status, only increasing levels of p-NF-kappaB immunoreactivity (a relative overexpression) were statistically significant predictors of poor survival. No markers in squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil were significantly related to rate of recurrence. When analyzing marker scores from tissue with high-grade dysplasia, relative overexpressions of both p-Akt and p-NF-kappaB were significantly related to poor survival. Additionally, increasing levels of p-NF-kappaB immunopositivity from tissue with high-grade dysplasia were also significantly related to rate of recurrence. In summary, p-NF-kappaB, overexpressed in high-grade dysplasia and squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil, is associated with worse prognosis in terms of high recurrence and poor survival, respectively. This significant finding in patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil, in combination with previous animal and in vitro studies, suggests that p-NF-kappaB represents a potential therapeutic target in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma.