The Effects of Smoking on the Throat

Young woman smoking cigarette, close-up
A woman smokes a cigarette outside. (Image: David De Lossy/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Smoking can lead to illness in many parts of your body, but your throat is particularly vulnerable. Each time tobacco smoke is inhaled, the throat is exposed to more than 7,000 chemicals, notes a 2010 report from the U.S. Surgeon General. Of those 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.

Throat Irritation

Any kind of smoke can irritate the throat tissues, and exposure to tobacco smoke is frequently to blame. An article published in 1982 in the "American Journal of Public Health" identifies formaldehyde and acrolein as primary irritants in tobacco smoke. Even small amounts of these byproducts of burning tobacco can cause irritation. Tobacco smoke contains far beyond the acceptable safe threshold for both of these chemicals. The authors note that smoking "low-tar" cigarettes does not decrease the level of throat irritation experienced by those who smoke.

Vocal Changes

Smoking commonly causes vocal changes, especially hoarseness and a raspy quality to the voice. These symptoms are often accompanied by a sore throat and frequent throat clearing. The American Academy of Otolaryngology lists frequent exposure to smoke as a known cause of chronic laryngitis, or irritation of the area of the throat that houses the vocal cords. Chronic irritation of your larynx, or "voice box," can deepen and weaken your voice.

Cancer

Smokers are at greatly increased risk for cancer of the lips, tongue, mouth, throat and larynx. According to a 2013 report from the American Cancer Society, approximately 26,000 Americans are diagnosed with cancer of the throat or larynx each year. All forms of tobacco use increase the risk for developing these cancers. Although 5-year survival rates for cancer of the mouth and throat have improved since 1975, the rate for laryngeal cancer has remained largely unchanged. Early detection remains a critical factor in long-term survival with cancers of the mouth, throat and larynx.

Concerning Symptoms

Possible symptoms of cancer affecting the throat or larynx include chronic hoarseness or vocal changes; growths or lumps in the throat or neck; bleeding from the throat or coughing up blood; and difficulty swallowing. If you experience any of these symptoms or other throat-related symptoms that concern you, see your doctor as soon as possible.

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