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Early Signs and Symptoms of Throat Cancer

author image Dr. Ann M. Hester
Dr. Ann M. Hester is a board-certified internal medicine specialist and author. She is also the creator of the Patient Whiz patient engagement app for iOS and Total en Salud health app in Spanish.
Early Signs and Symptoms of Throat Cancer
A woman is telling her doctor about a sore throat. Photo Credit BakiBG/iStock/Getty Images

Throat cancer can cause a variety of symptoms, based on the exact location of the cancer. Signs and symptoms of this condition may be nonspecific, and may overlap with symptoms from various other, less serious conditions. Tobacco use is a major risk factor for throat cancer, though alcohol and other factors may play a role as well. Infection with human papillomavirus, or HPV, is linked to an increased risk for cancer of the larynx, often called the voice box.

Neck Lump

While not always present, when a persistent lump in the neck is noticed, it should be evaluated by a doctor. Transient neck lumps are often noticed with upper respiratory infections, such as strep throat. Neck lumps are frequently just enlarged lymph glands that are reacting to an infection. When the infection clears, the lymph glands return to their regular size. But if a lump occurs in the absence of an infection, or persists long after the infection goes away, it may not be a simple lymph node.

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A hoarse voice is another potential symptom of throat cancer. But -- as with most other signs and symptoms -- hoarseness is not specific for any single illness. You may recall having had a viral infection that made you hoarse. However, hoarseness normally goes away when the infection clears. If it persists for several weeks, it needs to be evaluated by a doctor. While it may be due to a minor condition, it could be something more serious, like throat cancer.

Difficulty Swallowing and Sore Throat

Having a hard time swallowing can be due to several different factors. Trouble swallowing due to the pain of a simple sore throat typically resolves on its own in a few days or perhaps even a week or longer. But the sore throat and the difficulty swallowing should not linger for weeks to months. Persistence of either of these symptoms should trigger a visit to the doctor. If swallowing difficulties are due to throat cancer, the problem typically becomes more severe as the cancer grows.

Miscellaneous Symptoms

Depending on the exact location of the throat cancer, a host of other symptoms may manifest. For instance, if the cancer is encroaching on your windpipe, you may experience shortness of breath and wheezing. Cancer of the throat may also lead to coughing up blood-tinged phlegm. If the cancer is located in the voice box, ear pain and noisy breathing may be prominent. Unintended weight loss may occur with any throat cancer.

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