Throat Cancer Warning Signs

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

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

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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. 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]

Types of Throat Cancer

Three types of cancer can occur in your pharynx, which is the upper area of your swallowing tube: [1-3]

  • 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.

Your larynx is the firm area in the middle of your throat, where your Adam’s apple is felt. Your 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: [1-3]

  • Supraglottic laryngeal cancer occurs above your vocal cords.
  • Glottic laryngeal cancer occurs on your vocal cords.
  • Subglottic laryngeal cancer occurs below your vocal cords.

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

Are You at Risk for 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] These risk factors include: [1-3]

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

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]

What Are the 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. But, always let your doctor know if you notice any of these warning signs that are worsening or persistent: [1-3]

  • 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

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

How Is Throat Cancer Diagnosed?

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. The only sure way to diagnose throat cancer is with a biopsy, which may include: [1-3]

  • 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.

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. There are many treatment options. The best treatment depends on the cancer’s type, stage, location, and your general health and preference. [1-3]

Options may include one or a combination of these treatments: [1-3]

  • Surgical removal
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Immunotherapy, treatments that strengthen your body’s natural defense system
  • Targeted therapy, treatments that target specific aspects of the cancers biology

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]

For further reading on topics related to throat cancer, oral cancer, and mouth cancer symptoms, see these University Health News posts:

Sources

  1. MD Anderson, Throat Cancer, https://www.mdanderson.org/cancer-types/throat-cancer.html
  2. Mayo Clinic, Throat Cancer, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/throat-cancer/symptoms-causes/syc-20366462
  3. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Throat Cancer, https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/types/throat

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Chris Iliades, MD

Chris Iliades has an MD degree and 15 years of experience as a freelance writer. Based in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, his byline has appeared regularly on many health and medicine … Read More

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Comments Comments Policy
  • Does the need to constantly drink water count as another possible symptom? And is it possible that the voice does not change AT ALL? Thanks.

  • what if you have a large lump or possible 2? that feel like they are moving around in the lower part of the throat and it gags me enough where i feel like i want to be sick but .. that never happens.. it worsens if i raise my voice and then my entire throat , jaw and right ear hurt and then i sound “scratchy”. . ? any help would be great!! Really enjoyed this site… thank you.

  • I have a problem with swallowing. It feels that there is something stuck in my throat. I went to see my GP said it is a post nasal drip and he referred me to a ENT specialist and that was in 2016. The specialist did tests and he said nothing is wrong. It did not get any better and I am still struggling with this problem. Can you perhaps help me with any suggestions.

  • Anyone had their thyroids checked? That’s what my 1st lump was.. 4 years later I have half a thyroid and another lump that I pray it my partial thyroid and nothing else.. Maybe check the thyroid.

  • Candace, you are absolutely right! The same thing happened to me. I never had an abnormal thyroid blood test. Insist on a thyroid ultrasound.

  • have had over along time had problems with my throat swallowing is so soft food I manage I do have barretts condition and thyroid lately I get headaches ears hurt at times my doc has referred me to go to ENT found this visit very educational so thanks
    i

  • I keep getting this feeling as if something is stuck in my throat, if feels just a bit itchy sometimes… please could this be a sign or just something normal because it’s been there for about three weeks now…

  • I have been feeling uneasy in my throat, it feels like there is something in there, very irritating and painful feels like my veins are going to tear off. the pain stretches to my ears with pressure on my face. this has been on for almost three months and the antibiotics I take seems not to be working .

  • Look up LPR. It is what I have and sound like what you may have. ENT specialist may help. But not many know how to diagnose it or treat it.

  • I’ve had a sore throat for I’ve one week, seemed like flu symptoms, got medication and still the pain is worse every day to the point I went to ER last night and they gave me an IV with meds for my pain, slept better last night but it’s there today again. Good to mention that when I drink got drinks, like tea, coffee, etc. it feels much better for at least
    half hour.

  • I keep getting this feeling as if something is stuck in my throat, i feel like vomating sometimes. my voice will change mostly past evening time and i will feel difficulty in speaking. But i don’t get any cough. please help me if this could be a sign or just something normal because it’s been there for more then 2 months, somedays it will be more and some days it will be less

  • Dear Rahul… The only way you can be helped is with scheduling a visit to an ENT… Someone who makes you comfortable and gives you the time attention your case needs. Those are typically in better centers or special hospitals in large cities… Spend the bit extra and go there. Don’t go to your local people unless they make you feel super comfortable… Best…

  • Feels like something stuck in my throat when swallowing. Been on 2 antibiotics with no help. went to ENT and had the scope it hurt when it got to the area im feeling this. He said it was so swollen he put me on Prednisone for 10 days and go back. No relief yet.

  • My son 4 years had the tonsils around 3 months now. I went to go regularly and the give to me spry and other thing. I have try them but nothing. My son feel tired, sometimes had temperature,feel cold, he had dry cough, when he go sleep he can snooze very loud sometimes. He do not like to eat to much, he want just to drink. I went yesterday to gp they finally decided to refer him to be seen by a specialist, but I don’t know how long it will be taken this. Do you think I need to sent him to the hospital or to wat for the appointment with the specialist?

  • I have a sore throat in same spot has not gone away for 3wks.went to dr she said it is allergies..i still have sore throat same spot i feel like dr is wrong because i never had allergies ever before

  • I was hospitalised in early April 2019 when the doctors diagnosed I had pneumonia due to difficulty in swallowing because the vocal cord does not close off when I swallow. now after reading this article I will ask the doctor to check my throat

  • I have a place in the back of my throat that looks like a blood blister about the size of a bb. It came up after having strep and pnemonia and coughing alot. But its been two months and not gone away. I have really bad allergies and my throat stays a little scratchy this time of year. But this spot is not sore or tender at all.

  • I AM A REGULAR SMOKING PERSON IN NETWEEN 4-5 DAYS A RED COLOURED BLOOD SUBSTANCE IS COMING THROUGH MY COUGH .IS THIS IS A SYMPTHOM OF THROAT CANCER
    ?

  • Hello sir,
    Actually sir i started drinking and smoking one and half year back in dec 2017. I usually smoked 4-5 cigarette daily for one year and sometimes also used to have alcohol. From last one month i am feeling some suspicious activities in my throat like pricking pain in my throat which some times goes some time comes back and some times continuously there. may these signs of be throat cancer? Please guide me with your best advice.
    Thanking you in advance.

  • Hey. So, lately I have been having a very sore and scratchy throat and I came here, because I have a feeling something is wrong. Sometimes I feel the pain in my teeth or my ears as well. But so far I don’t have any other symptoms. What should I do?

  • My throat always feels scraped and burns and develops into painful lump specially while swallowing. The burning spreads to ears and the pain to teeth and gums. I saw a gastroentologist as it used to cause burning in my stomach but he did not find anything wrong with GI area suggested to see ENT. The ENT said it was a post nasal drip causing the burning and did a sinus surgery and put me on allergy medications since Dec 2018. But I still have severe burning from throat to ear and pain while swallowing. I also cough a lot while eating anything.Cancer runs in my family and I am scared of developing one. Please suggest.

  • I have the sore throat and the horrible cough that doesn’t go away for month. I went to the allergist and he told me to read a book, (I don’t remember the name) but it is about LPR. Please check it out before spending lots of money at the ENT.

  • I have read a lot of comments here and many people seem very worried. There can be many causes of a sore throat eg) allergies, infection, acid reflux, cancer, etc. Anyone who has a lump or bloody cough should be seen by a provider (NP, PA, MD). My doctor told me it is difficult to tell why my throat is sore without having a specialist look down it, that there are many possible
    causes. Also, my throat always looks red, burns when I eat spicey food, and I am constantly clearing my throat of mucus it seems. I also have frequent sinus congestion. So I went to an ENT specialist, who looked down my throat with a tiny scope and he said my throat looks fine. So, I think I have allergies. I know when I take Sudafed, it helps my sinus congestion and when I take allergy medicine it helps my throat pain and itching.

  • Sigh well I am glad I found this sight. Out of the blue the last 2 weeks it feels like something is stuck in my throat and I feel a little tender on the left side of throat. I did not go to my primary care doctor I am going to see an ENT this Tuesday. I am not having trouble swallowing but I feel a little throat discomfort. I am the same age as the belated Beth Chapman who was diagnosed with throat cancer @ 49yrs old and died 2 years later. Scary feeling.

  • Pls am feeling pain in my neck and my throat feel dry too,pls what can I do before it get worst for me am really scared

  • Have been having a throat discomfort for weeks now,, constantly clear my throat of mucus and it seems like something is hanging on my throat…please any help

  • I have had a bit of discomfort for the last 7 months on same spot in my throat ( at least that’s what it feels like). I don’t feel any problem while swallowing solid food but I feel discomfort while swallowing saliva . The slight irritation or pain comes and goes and sometimes affects my ear too. I don’t feel anything if the throat is inactive. If it aches, drinking something warm soothes that. I consulted 2 ENT specialist but both said its in my head. I don’t know what to do.

  • I was having violent coughing and sore throat about 5 months ago. I was gagging and couldn’t breathe when having these episodes. They were frequent. They occurred sometimes while eating or drinking. Sometimes it happened when I was just talking or for no reason other than breathing. After 3 months I went to the doctor, he took an X-ray and said I could possibly have pneumonia. I took antibiotics for 10 days and they did help. I have episodes of coughing and gagging less frequently but I still have episodes. Went back to Doctor after 2 more months and he referred me to ENT. I see ENT in two weeks. This has gone on about 5 months now and I’m getting worried. I just thought of the possibility of cancer when I found out today the ENT my doctor referred me to is at a cancer center. I’m 70 and understand it’s more common in the elderly. I don’t smoke or drink or have any of the causes. What do you think is wrong?

  • I feel the same way as the person who wrote in June 28. Age is the same also no smoking drinking or drugs. My pain was on the left side of throat also but seems to be in back of throat now. Feels like something has moved. My throat forward. I’ve had pain for 7 weeks. At first Dr said it was strep and put me on two different antibiotics but the pain has been still there. Going next week Thursday to ent dr! Mother was diagnosed with voice box cancer when she was about my age. The left side of throat feels a little swollen. Also my singing voice has been off. Not that it was good to begin with but it’s worse now. Hope I get food news at ent dr! What do you think?

  • I hv been having something stuck into my throat most of the times I swallow, especially tiny food eg lime seed, or a quarter of small tablet of pills.

  • Question: I had pain in my throat now . Because few days before a fish spike stuck in my thorat. Can I take pain killer ? And is this thorat pain lead cancer?

    • Hello, unfortunately, we’re unable to provide specific medical advice, so it’s best to contact your doctor. Thanks for reaching out and feel better soon!

  • I am currently being treated for H pylori and Celia I am currently newly diagnosed and taking antibiotics for the H pylori, but as of 3 days ago my throat hurts so badd that I can barely eat. I do not want to jump and assume that I have throat cancer but I know it’s not strep because the antibiotics I am on treat strep, I am in so much pain and do not know what to do and fear calling my doctor because every time I go there is a new diagnosis. The back of my ears hurt and the base of my tongue all the way down to the beginning of my esophagus I keep finding myself holding my actual throat without even noticing because I am in so much pain.

  • 45 yrs old. I have sore throat for 2 weeks now not feeling sick. Can’t sleep. Voice starting be affected. Ears ringing but nothing new. No ear pain. Going make appt to doc. Tommrow no insurance. Wish me luck. I feel bad for everyone suffering with physical, and mental stress.

  • I have observed that in the last
    3to4 months my voice has become somewhat husky and I am not getting the words out clearly.lf I speak long sentence s
    my voice sort of trails off.I do not experience any pain or
    difficulty in swallowing any home remedies or allopathic
    treatment.I used to have a fairly
    deep voice which I am not able to manage now.Pl.advise.

  • A scope inserted through my nostril showed a growth. I am 85 years old and a biospy was ruled out due to my bent neck. I was a smoker – quit 15 years back. I prefer to take a chance and carry on. Any comments?

  • I think I have throat cancer not just because I have all of the symptoms listed but also many test I’ve had has come back suspect. My dr at kaiser have dropped the ball and that’s the only insurance I currently can afford. I need a second opinion but can’t afford to pay out of pocket. Please help.. before this kills me

  • Great article. My only criticism is that it did not say that the fastest growing group with this type of cancer (due to HPV ) is young people. Also, HPV ENT cancers, while still a challenging treatment, are the most successfully treated of these cancers. This information is NOT getting to young people nor those who live them. Also, no one should feel ashamed of having an HPV cancer. It can come from kissing also. And this cancer or related ones in this area can be related to EB, as mentioned, or autoimmune issues. And that is what we know now…there may be other reasons found in the future. So do not let judgement stand in the way. Cancer occurs because of the above reasons AND something else…because not everyone who smokes, drinks or gets HPV get cancer.

    My experience taught me all this. I had what I thought was a budding ear infection last June 15th. For a couple months before, I woke up at night 1-2xs / week with a tickle that caused small coughing fits. Unusual for me but it did not happen often and since I have a lot of allergies, I attributed it to post-nasal drip caused by the warmer weather bringing allergens. But the moderate 2x/day fizzling Pain sensation and mild pressure immediately before the center of my ear was not going away. In June I also noticed an irritation at the side of my tongue and intermittently the hearing in that ear sounded like I had water in it. Hearing was notably but slightly diminished . By mid June I went to urgent care and the doctor said the ear was not infected and was clear. Knowing I could poke the tongue irritation and produce discomfort in the same spot before my ear, I asked this doctor if it could be related to the irritation on my tongue and she would not examine it..saying I needed to see an ENT. [NOTE: in hindsight, this MD should have connected the unexplained symptoms with the lesion because oral-pharyngeal cancers refer discomfort/pain outside if the more obvious throat symptoms..but also dependent on the location of the lesion.]

    I contacted my primary care doctor and the medical assistant said to go directly to their ENT. (I’m the meantime, I saw my dentist who said, to be safe, I should see the oral surgeon). I got in the next week at the ENT’s office for a thorough examination. The ENT look at the irritation which was now a bump and said ‘I’ve see cancer regularly and that is not cancer”. Knowing that some cancers can be very tricky to diagnose w/o biopsy, I kept my appt with the oral surgeon. Knowing that this was now a very suspicious lesion and how quickly oral-esophageal cancers can increase in stage (1-4), I made two appts at two oral surgeons because this was challenging to get a timely biopsy as general oral surgeons could take up to 6 weeks to see and subsequent biopsy could run into the same challenges in scheduling. On top of that it would be a 1 week minimum turn around time for pathology reporting.). I got in on cancellations (and begging). The first oral surgeon said it must be biopsies and scheduled it. The second oral surgeon, whom I saw 5 days later, said it must be biopsied and wanted to do it immediately in the office (even though the MD was running 1.5 hrs late). The path report came back a week later positive for squamous cell carcinoma. It had been 6 weeks since noticing an issue with my ear.

    Pursuit of an onco ENT surgeon took 2 – 3 weeks more to schedule…there were no cancelations. The first could only schedule surgery 3 weeks out and the second MD, although seeing him later, could schedule 12 days sooner than the first…so I went with him since skill level & experience was the same.

    An added symptom to the above scenario was that I was steadily losing weight…a total of about 10 lbs…which were like my last 10 lbs I could NEVER lose. I was told it was stress. But had they asked me, I would have said I have always gained weight when stressed.

    From noticing the lesion to having it out, it took 10 weeks…and that is earlier because I pushed. (Keep in mind my dentist was doing work in my mouth for two months before I noticed ear symptoms & while my sleep was disturbed 1-2xs / week).

    IMHO, ENT cancers have a very small window of remaining early stage cancers. The treatment becomes more challenging in stage 2 and above. The treatments are difficult to deal with as it involves taking lymph nodes in a narrow area of nerves & blood vessels. Accompanying surgery, many times, is radiation which affects, usually, swallowing and other oral functions for a prolonged time or permanently.
    So if these cancers can be caught earlier and in stage 1, it is a lot easier to deal with (keep in mind my surgery recovery was VERY challenging and I am still dealing with some enunciation issues that, I am told, will remain noticeable when I begin to tire at the end of day. I had a 1.6 cm stage one lesion that came VERY close to becoming stage II. Because if the challenge to the patient of taking lymph nodes and possible disfigurement and if something does grow in the nodes it will be treated the same, high surveillance is being employed. Survival rates for stage 1-2 at 5 years is 80-60%. So anyone reading this can begin to understand how critical it is to be knowledgeable about symptoms in the head and neck area. Do not go anymore than two weeks with symptoms and be aware that even with MDs who should know better, ENT cancer symptoms are overlooked or not aggressively pursued to avoid lost time to diagnosis.

    In hindsight I have noticed multiple dentists have not done proper oral cancer screenings. This is the doctor to most like find something that will be pursued. Oral health is very much connected to the health in the rest of the body. So PKEASE Google oral cancer screening in YouTube and be aware of what should be done at every checkup. It you din’t See a dentist (you should) then remind another doctor that you din’t and ask them to do it. Also, do as much as you can yourself, screening wise, as you will most likely find it yourself if you are well versed in health.

    Lastly, there is no use in fearing this. It is something that, if there, will only get worse if delayed. Denial is only denies the person of early diagnosis.

  • I have little soar throat only at night in bed for about 2 ½ years, could this be due to disruption of the gut bacteria that creates gas which bushes the stomach acid up?
    Could this also damage the food pipe?
    Thank you for reply

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