Throat Cancer Symptoms: Take Heed of These Serious Signs

Tell your doctor about a lump in the throat, swallowing difficulties, or other potential throat cancer 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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Your throat. A lot can happen to that 5-inch hollow tube that connects the base of your nasal cavity to your windpipe and esophagus. A sore throat can silence your singing voice. Or a faulty pharynx (the medical name for the throat) may cause swallowing difficulties that can affect your appetite. While in most cases these and other warning signs herald a cold or other benign condition, they also could be throat cancer symptoms.

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 15,000 Americans are diagnosed with throat cancer each year. If you experience any symptoms of throat cancer, especially if they linger, seek a medical evaluation from your physician.

Recognizing Throat Cancer Symptoms

Throat cancer is a broad term used to describe cancers that form in the pharynx, larynx (voice box), and the tonsils. More specifically, experts categorize throat cancer (laryngeal cancer, for example, or tonsil cancer) based on the area of the pharynx affected:

  • Nasopharynx: The upper section of the throat, located directly behind the nose; cancers in this area of the throat are relatively rare.
  • Oropharynx: The middle portion of the throat, located behind the mouth; also includes the soft palate, tonsils, and the back of the tongue.
  • Hypopharynx: The bottom section of the throat, where the pharynx meets the trachea and esophagus; adjacent to the larynx and often grouped with laryngeal cancer.

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Symptoms of Throat Cancer

Cancer can affect more than one section of the throat and larynx, as well as the esophagus (called esophageal cancer) or trachea, at the same time. Throat cancer symptoms may vary slightly depending on the area of the pharynx affected.

The first signs of throat cancer that are common to all three types include a sore throat that does not go away, a lump in the throat or neck, and ear pain. Other, site-specific signs of throat cancer may include:

  • Nasopharyngeal: A lump in the nose, nosebleeds, nasal blockages/difficulty breathing, headache, recurrent ear infections, ringing in the ear/hearing loss, difficulty opening the mouth, and facial pain or numbness.
  • Oropharyngeal: Swallowing difficulties, trouble opening the mouth or moving the tongue, voice changes, unexplained weight loss, and coughing up blood.
  • Hypopharyngeal: Swallowing problems and voice changes.

In addition to throat cancer, several non-cancerous medical conditions may cause these symptoms, so it’s important to see your physician to get the right diagnosis.

Your dentist should examine your oral cavity and oropharynx as part of routine checkups. Also, regularly look at your mouth and throat in the mirror, and tell your healthcare professional about any abnormalities you notice.

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and review of your symptoms. If he or she suspects throat cancer, you’ll be referred to an ear, nose, and throat specialist for a more comprehensive examination of your throat. The specialist will use special mirrors or a flexible scope (endoscope) to visually inspect your throat and larynx for signs of cancer. Your physician also may recommend a panendoscopy, a procedure done under general anesthesia, to inspect more thoroughly the pharynx, larynx and surrounding areas and to biopsy suspicious tissue.

No simple screening tests for throat cancer are available, so routine screening generally is not recommended. Sometimes, throat cancer may offer no warning signs until it becomes advanced. But in some cases it’s still possible to detect the disease in its earlier, more treatable stages because certain throat cancer symptoms, such as voice changes, may develop fairly quickly in the disease process. As such, see your doctor if you develop any signs of throat cancer so you can start prompt treatment.

Know Your Risk: Throat Cancer Causes

Throat cancer is more common in older adults and among men. Although there’s nothing you can do about your age or gender, you can take steps to prevent other, modifiable throat cancer risk factors.

Cigarette butts

Cigarette smoking: It’s a dangerous habit that raises one’s risk factor for throat cancer, according to research.

As with other cancers, smoking and other forms of tobacco use can be causes of throat cancer—particularly oropharyngeal, hypopharyngeal, and laryngeal cancers. Alcohol consumption, especially excessive drinking, also increases the risk of throat cancer.

Combining tobacco and alcohol use multiplies the risk. For instance, some research suggests that heavy drinkers and smokers may be up to 100 times more likely to develop oropharyngeal cancer compared to those who don’t drink or smoke, the American Cancer Society notes. By quitting or refraining from smoking and limiting or avoiding alcohol consumption, you may reduce your risk of throat cancer.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW

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

A Word on HPV Throat Cancer

Another risk factor for oropharyngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers is human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. (Infection with another virus, Epstein-Barr, is linked to nasopharyngeal cancer.) HPV encompasses more than 150 viruses—HPV 16 is the type associated with throat cancer.

Perhaps most widely known for its role in cervical cancer, HPV also can cause throat cancer, although only a small percentage of people with HPV infection develop throat cancer. The virus can be transmitted from person to person via skin-to-skin contact or during sex.

Some studies have found that the risk of HPV infection of the mouth and throat is greater in men and is tied to sexual activities such as oral sex and open-mouth kissing. The risk of infection also increases with the number of sexual partners you have. Talk to your doctor about your risk of HPV infection and whether you should consider vaccination against HPV.

Throat Cancer Treatment Options

Throat cancer can be treated in several ways, depending on the location of the cancer:

  • Nasopharyngeal: For early-stage disease, radiation therapy to the tumor and adjacent lymph nodes is the primary treatment. For later stages, radiation plus chemotherapy is the standard treatment regimen. Some patients may require further radiation therapy or surgery if the cancer spreads to nearby lymph nodes.
  • Oropharyngeal: Surgery and radiation therapy are the primary treatment options, and are often followed by chemotherapy. In some patients, doctors may augment radiation therapy or chemotherapy with the drug cetuximab (Erbitux), which attacks the cancer by targeting a protein on its surface.
  • Hypopharyngeal/laryngeal: A major goal of treatment is to preserve your voice, when possible. Some cancers that form on the vocal cords can be removed with laser surgery, a minimally invasive procedure known as vocal cord stripping, or partial or complete removal of the vocal cords. Others require surgery to remove part of the throat and voice box, or the entire voice box. Radiation may be used as the primary treatment for some early-stage hypopharyngeal and laryngeal cancers, for patients too sick to undergo surgery, and to kill any cancer that remains after surgery.

Chemotherapy is commonly used with radiation therapy as a primary treatment of more advanced cancers, as well as after surgery or to treat cancers that have spread or are too large to be fully removed by surgery. Targeted therapy with cetuximab may be added to radiation or chemotherapy.


Originally published in 2016, this post is regularly updated.

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Comments
  • healthideas.in

    This is my first time visit at here and i am genuinely impressed to read everthing at alone place.

  • 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.

  • GLORIA M.

    I was able all i needed to know on throat problems. Very educative. Did not find food to eat to prevent.

  • alissa k.

    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.

  • Aletta v.

    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.

  • Candace

    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

  • Daniel O.

    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

  • The p.

    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…

  • Somorin o.

    From days now have been feeling pains when I swallow my silver but have been using septrin

  • Tracey

    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.

  • ermire

    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?

  • Carolyn

    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

  • WE F.

    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

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