Most head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas that develop in the upper aerodigestive epithelium after exposure to carcinogens such as tobacco and alcohol. Human papillomavirus has also been strongly implicated as a causative agent in a subset of these cancers. The complex anatomy and vital physiological role of the tumour-involved structures dictate that the goals of treatment are not only to improve survival outcomes but also to preserve organ function. Major improvements have been accomplished in surgical techniques and radiotherapy delivery. Moreover, systemic therapy including chemotherapy and molecularly targeted agents--namely, the epidermal growth factor receptor inhibitors--has been successfully integrated into potentially curative treatment of locally advanced squamous-cell carcinoma of the head and neck. In deciding which treatment strategy would be suitable for an individual patient, important considerations include expected functional outcomes, ability to tolerate treatment, and comorbid illnesses. The collaboration of many specialties is the key for optimum assessment and decision making. We review the epidemiology, molecular pathogenesis, diagnosis and staging, and the latest multimodal management of squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck.