Throat Cancer Symptoms, Risks, and Treatment: What to Know

Treatment for throat cancers can be successful if cancer is found early, so it is important to know the warning signs and symptoms.

throat cancer symptoms throat pain

Cancer can affect multiple sections of the throat (larynx, esophagus, trachea) so know your risk factors and be wary of symptoms.

© Andrey Popov |

Throat cancer is not one type of cancer. It is an area where cancer can occur and it includes six types of cancer. Three types can occur in your upper throat, called your pharynx, and three types can occur in your lower throat, called your larynx. Treatment for throat cancers can be successful if cancer is found early, so it is important to know the warning signs and symptoms. [1-3]

Causes | Symptoms | Treatment

Types of Throat Cancer

Three types of cancer can occur in your pharynx, which is the upper area of your swallowing tube:

  • Nasopharyngeal cancer occurs in the area from the back of your nose down to the back of your mouth.
  • Oropharyngeal cancer can occur in the back of your mouth, tonsils, soft palate, or on the back of your tongue. This is the most common type of throat cancer.
  • Hypopharyngeal cancer can occur from the lower back of your throat down to your voice box, called your larynx. [1-3]

Your larynx is the firm area in the middle of your throat, where your Adam’s apple is felt. The larynx is the structure where your vocal cords are located. Your larynx also acts as a valve to channel food and drink into your swallowing tube (esophagus) instead of into your lungs. There are three types of laryngeal cancer:

  • Supraglottic laryngeal cancer occurs above your vocal cords
  • Glottic laryngeal cancer occurs on your vocal cords
  • Subglottic laryngeal cancer occurs below your vocal cords [1-3]

Most throat cancers start in cells that line of the surface of your throat. These cells are called squamous cells, therefore most types of throat cancer are squamous cell cancers. [1-3]

throat cancer larynx vocal cords

Identifying the type of throat cancer you have depends on its location. © solar22 | iStock / GettyImages

What Causes Throat Cancer?

Throat cancer – like other cancers – occurs when cells in your throat develop genetic changes that cause them to grow uncontrollably. As they grow, they can form into a tumor and crowd out normal and healthy cells. The cause of these mutations is not clear but there are factors that can increase your risk. [2] The risk factors for throat cancer include:

  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Human papilloma virus infection
  • A diet with very little fruits or vegetables
  • Long-term acid indigestion, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) [1-3]

Throat cancer is five times more common in men. Most cases occur in people over age 60. Smoking and drinking together are a bigger risk than smoking or drinking alone. People who have HPV infection may get throat cancer at a younger age. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease spread through sexual contact and oral sex. [1] More than 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancer may be linked to HPV infection. [3]

Throat Cancer Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of throat cancer depend on where the cancer is located and how far advanced it is. These signs and symptoms are common complaints that often come and go, and may not be related to cancer. However, always let your doctor know if you notice any of these warning signs that are worsening or persistent:

  • Hoarseness or another change in your voice
  • Trouble swallowing or feeling like something is stuck in your throat
  • Sore throat, ear, or jaw pain
  • A lump in your neck
  • Cough
  • Noisy or difficult breathing
  • Weight loss [1-3]

Other possible warning signs include trouble opening your mouth or moving your tongue, nose bleeds, stuffy nose, coughing up blood, and headaches. [3]

Making the Diagnosis

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and any history of smoking, drinking, or HPV risk. You may need to be examined with a long, thin scope inserted through your nose or mouth (endoscopic exam). Imaging studies may be important as well. The only sure way to diagnose throat cancer is with a biopsy, which may include:

  • Incisional biopsy, to remove part of the cancer growth
  • Excisional biopsy, to remove most or all of the cancer growth
  • Aspiration biopsy, to remove a core of cancer growth or cells through a thin needle [1-3]

How Is Throat Cancer Treated?

Throat cancer may be successfully treated if caught at an early stage. Doctors stage throat cancer as stage I, II, III, or IV. Stage I is the earliest and stage IV is the most advanced. Fortunately, there are many treatment options. The best throat cancer treatment depends on the type, stage, location, and your general health and preference. [1-3]

Options may include one or a combination of these treatments:

  • Surgical removal
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Immunotherapy, treatments that strengthen your body’s natural defense system
  • Targeted therapy, treatments that target specific aspects of the cancer’s biology [1-3]

There is no way to completely prevent throat cancer, but you can lower your risk by not smoking, not drinking, eating lots of fruits and vegetables, practicing safe sex, and getting the HPV vaccine, which is available for boys, girls, young men, and young women. [2]

  1. MD Anderson, Throat Cancer
  2. Mayo Clinic, Throat Cancer
  3. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Throat Cancer

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Chris Iliades, MD

Dr. Chris Iliades is board-certified in Ear, Nose and Throat and Head and Neck Surgery from the American Board of Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery. He holds a medical … Read More

View all posts by Chris Iliades, MD

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