Numerous single-arm studies have shown that chemotherapy may produce a high rate of response and rapid shrinkage of tumor when used before radiation and/or surgery in patients with squamous-cell carcinoma of the head and neck. Despite this high rate of tumor response, randomized controlled trials do not indicate any consistent improvement in survival for patients receiving chemotherapy as compared with patients receiving local treatment alone. This population of patients often has poor performance status, and chemotherapy invariable adds some toxicity. Also, studies in animals suggest that some types of chemotherapy given before local radiation or surgery might increase the probability of distant metastases. Apart from pilot studies of feasibility, all future trials of chemotherapy should involve a randomized comparison with a group of patients receiving radiation and/or surgery alone. At present, chemotherapy has no place in the routine management of primary head and neck cancer.