Smoking can lead to ailments in many parts of the body, but the throat is particularly vulnerable. Each time tobacco smoke is inhaled, the throat is exposed to more than 7,000 chemicals, according to a 2010 report from the U.S. Surgeon General. Of that frightening array of chemicals, roughly 70 are known to cause cancer and hundreds of others are toxic. The effects of smoking on the throat range from minor irritation to cancer.
Any kind of smoke can irritate the throat tissues, but inhaling cigarette smoke is particularly harmful. When a person puffs on a cigarette, the inhaled smoke irritates the throat tissues due to the heat as well as the many gases and fine particles it contains. Formaldehyde and acrolein are primary irritants in tobacco smoke. Even small amounts of these byproducts of burning tobacco can cause irritation of the throat as well as the lining of the nose and the eyes. Tobacco smoke contains far beyond the acceptable safe threshold for both of these chemicals. Smoking low-tar cigarettes does not decrease the level of throat irritation experienced by those who smoke. Smokers often experience persistent throat soreness and increased secretions, leading to frequent throat-clearing.
Smoking frequently causes vocal changes, such as hoarseness and a raspy quality to the voice. Vocal changes associated with smoking occur because of swelling and thickening of the vocal cords. These changes lead to a lower pitch to the voice, which is usually more noticeable in women because of the naturally higher pitch of the voice compared to men. Other more subtle changes in the acoustic quality of the voice also occur, making it sound less harmonic and more raspy. These acoustic voice alterations are also related to vocal cord changes associated with prolonged smoking. Additionally, smokers are also at increased risk for noncancerous and cancerous growths on the vocal cords, which typically lead to voice changes.
Smokers are at greatly increased risk for cancer of the lips, tongue, mouth, throat and larynx, or voice box. A 2017 American Cancer Society report states that approximately 30,400 Americans are diagnosed with cancer of the throat or larynx each year. All forms of tobacco use increase the risk for developing these cancers. Heavy alcohol use compounds the risk of throat and laryngeal cancer. Men are affected by these cancers more frequently than women, although women can and do develop throat and laryngeal cancer. Early detection remains a critical factor in long-term survival with cancer of the throat or larynx.
Warnings and Precautions
Cancer is the most serious throat condition that can develop due to smoking. See your doctor as soon as possible in you experience any warning signs or symptoms that might indicate throat or laryngeal cancer, including:
-- persistent throat soreness, hoarseness or vocal changes
-- growths or lumps in the throat or neck
-- bleeding from the throat or coughing up blood
-- difficulty swallowing
-- a sensation that something is stuck in the throat
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.