A high occult metastatic rate and a high regional recurrence rate are reported among patients with early oral squamous carcinoma; however, considerable controversy exists regarding the merits of elective neck dissection in this group. The purpose of the present study was to examine the influence of various histological factors on the risk of occult neck disease, neck conversion and recurrence among 63 patients with stage I and II oral cancer. Tumour thickness (P = 0.0175) and size (P = 0.023) were both significantly predictive of outcome. Among tumours of a given thickness, those with infiltrative margins also showed a tendency towards a poorer outcome; however, this was not significant (P = 0.0768). Patients undergoing elective neck dissection with pathological evidence of cervical metastases or with subsequent neck recurrence had a better 3-year survival (55%) than those developing neck conversion after primary neck observation (20%). Our data would suggest considering tumours greater than 5 mm in thickness or with infiltrative margins as potential candidates for elective neck treatment.