Head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCCs) are caused by tobacco and alcohol consumption and by infection with high-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV). Tumours often develop within preneoplastic fields of genetically altered cells. The persistence of these fields after treatment presents a major challenge, because it might lead to local recurrences and second primary tumours that are responsible for a large proportion of deaths. Aberrant signalling pathways have been identified in HNSCCs and inhibition of epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) has proved a successful therapeutic strategy. In this Review, we discuss the recent literature on tumour heterogeneity, field cancerization, molecular pathogenesis and the underlying causative cancer genes that can be exploited for novel and personalized treatments of patients with HNSCC.