Throat cancer typically refers to cancers arising from tissue in the throat, voicebox or tonsils. Cancer in these locations can cause a variety of symptoms, dending on the exact location and size of the tumor. Signs and symptoms of throat cancer may be nonspecific and overlap with symptoms from other, less serious conditions. Tobacco and moderate to heavy alcohol use are the primary risk factor for throat cancer. Infection with certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) is linked to an increased risk for some types of throat cancer.
Sore Throat and Difficulty Swallowing
A persistent sore throat and difficult or painful swallowing can signal the presence of cancer in the throat. These symptoms may be accompanied by the sensation that something is stuck in the throat. A sore throat, or pharyngitis, is a very common ailment. It is most frequently due to a viral infection of the throat or, less commonly, strep throat. Infectious pharyngitis typically resolves within a week or so. A persistent sore throat, which may be accompanied by difficult or painful swallowing, should trigger a visit to the doctor. Swallowing difficulties due to throat cancer often become more severe as the cancer grows.
Voice Change or Hoarseness
A voice change or hoarseness can signal the presence of throat cancer, particularly cancer of the larynx. However, this symptom is not specific for throat cancer. Laryngitis, a viral infection of the voice box, commonly causes hoarseness or a change in the sound of your voice. With laryngitis, however, the change is short-lived and resolves when the infection clears. A persistent or progressive change in the voice requires medical evaluation to determine the cause.
Cough and Breathing Difficulty
A cancerous tumor in the throat can stimulate the cough reflex and provoke a persistent cough. Some people may experience a nagging sensation that they need to clear their throat. Depending on their size and location, throat tumors can also potentially obstruct airflow and lead to difficult or noisy breathing, or wheezing. Any unexplained or persistent cough requires medical evaluation. Significant breathing difficulty requires urgent medical attention.
Throat cancers can potentially cause a lump in the neck, although this symptom is not always present. Transient neck lumps are often noticed with upper respiratory infections, such as strep throat. Neck lumps associated with upper respiratory infections represent enlarged lymph nodes that are reacting to the infection. When the infection clears, the lymph nodes return to their regular size. A neck lump that occurs in the absence of an infection or persists long after an infection goes away may signal throat cancer or another serious condition.
Other Signs and Symptoms
Depending on the exact location of the throat cancer, a host of other symptoms may manifest. Some throat cancers provoke ear pain, which can be severe. People with cancer of the tonsils may notice blood in their saliva and experience pain at the back of the throat when eating acidic foods, like citrus fruit or tomato sauce. Unintended weight loss can occur with any throat cancer, although this is generally not an early symptom.
Warnings and Precautions
Seek medical care as soon as possible if you experience any signs or symptoms that might signal the presence of throat cancer. While many other less serious conditions can cause these symptoms, the possibility of throat cancer warrants immediate medical attention. Early diagnosis and treatment of throat cancer offers the greatest chance for a cure. Seek emergency medical attention if you experience significant breathing difficulty or wheezing.
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.