Updated on February 1, 2024
8 min read

What Does Throat Cancer Feel Like? Symptoms, Risk Factors & Treatment

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The most common symptoms of first-stage throat cancer include a chronic sore throat, persistent hoarseness, and the sensation of a lump in the throat.

In the beginning, it might feel like the common cold or cough. However, your symptoms will persist past two weeks, when a cold would usually resolve.

Throat cancer can often change the sound of your voice or make it harder to swallow. 

What are the Warning Signs of Throat Cancer?

The warning signs of throat cancer depend on where it develops and how it spreads. 

Warning signs of throat cancer infographic

The most common symptoms of first-stage throat cancer include:

  • Sore throat that continues for more than 4 to 6 weeks
  • A persistent cough
  • Changes in voice, especially hoarseness
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)2
  • Swelling/lump in the neck
  • The sensation of a lump in the throat, especially when swallowing

However, you may notice other warning signs depending on what type and stage of throat cancer you have. Cancer in the larynx, or voice box, may make speaking difficult. 

Cancer in the pharynx may cause problems with breathing, chewing, and swallowing. Other signs and symptoms can include:

  • White patches or sores in the mouth cavity
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Constant phlegm production
  • Persistent nasal congestion
  • Nose bleeds
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Bad breath

When to See a Doctor 

You should see a doctor if you have the symptoms of throat cancer for three or more weeks. The sooner you catch it, the easier it will be to treat.

Seek immediate attention if you experience difficulty breathing or swallowing and/or a lump in the neck region.

How Quickly Does Throat Cancer Develop?

Throat cancer may spread rapidly, so if your symptoms persist past a few weeks, make an appointment to get examined. Throat cancer develops in stages:

  • Stage 0 — The tumor has only affected the top layer of cells of the cancerous area.
  • Stage 1 — At this stage, the cancer is less than 2 centimeters in diameter and is confined to the throat area where it began.
  • Stage 2 — The tumor is between 2 and 4 centimeters in diameter or may have spread to adjacent areas.
  • Stage 3 — The tumor is larger than 4 centimeters in diameter or has spread to other adjacent structures in the throat or one lymph node.
  • Stage 4 — The tumor has spread to multiple lymph nodes and other organs.

Early treatment will prevent throat cancer from spreading and increase your chances of a better outcome.

What Causes Throat Cancer?

Cellular genetic abnormalities in your throat cause throat cancer. These mutations induce uncontrollable cell growth, leading to tumor development.3 

Exactly what causes these cell mutations in some people but not others is unknown. However, recent research on throat cancer has identified several factors that may increase your risk of throat cancer.10

10 Risk Factors of Throat Cancer

Knowing what puts you at a higher risk of developing throat cancer can help you prevent it. The following factors may increase your risk of developing throat cancer:

1. Tobacco and Alcohol Use

Tobacco use is the leading cause of head and neck cancer, including cancer of the larynx and hypopharynx. Smokers are significantly more likely to develop these cancers than non-smokers.

In some studies, long-term exposure to secondhand smoke has also been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, although more research is required to confirm this.4

Moderate or heavy alcohol use (more than one drink per day) also raises the risk of throat cancer, although not as much as smoking. Combined tobacco and alcohol use makes your risk even higher.

2. Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Infection

While HPV is more frequently linked with cervical cancer, HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer is the country’s fastest-growing head and neck malignancy.

Your chance of getting HPV-positive throat cancer depends on the strain of HPV to which you were exposed.

HPV 16 and, less frequently, HPV 18 are the strains most commonly linked to throat cancer.5

3. Excess Body Weight

Too much weight for your height increases the risk of laryngeal and oropharyngeal cancer.6

People who eat more plant-based foods, such as non-starchy vegetables and whole fruit, are more likely to lose weight and lower the risk of developing these cancers.

4. Poor Diet

Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers have been linked to poor diet and vitamin deficiencies. Following a healthy eating pattern may reduce your risk of developing throat cancer.7

The American Cancer Society advises adopting a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while limiting or avoiding red and processed meats, sugary beverages, and highly processed foods.

5. Genetics

Genetic factors may play a role in your likelihood of developing throat cancer. 

People with hereditary genetic disorders, such as Fanconi anemia and dyskeratosis congenita (DC), are more likely to develop laryngeal cancer.

6. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) involves a backup of stomach acid into the esophagus, which can cause heartburn. 

GERD increases the risk of esophageal cancer.8 It may also increase a person’s hypopharyngeal cancer risk, although further research is needed.

7. Occupational Exposure

Exposure to sulfuric acid mist, nickel, wood dust, paint fumes, and asbestos increases the risk of laryngeal cancer.

Those who work with these materials must adhere to safety and work standards, including wearing industrial respirators and having sufficient ventilation in the workplace.

8. Gender

Males are approximately five times more likely than females to develop laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers.

This could be because the significant risk factors, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, are more prevalent in males.

9. Age

Throat cancer typically develops over a long period of time. Therefore, it is uncommon in young people. 

More than half of throat cancer patients are over 65 when the cancer is discovered.

10. Race

Research has shown that race may play a role in developing throat cancer.

Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers are more common in African Americans and non-Hispanic whites than in Asian/Pacific Islanders and American Indian/Alaska Natives.4

Diagnosing Throat Cancer 

Your doctor will perform several tests to diagnose throat cancer and determine its stage. 

Comparative illustration of a healthy throat vs one with throat cancer 1

The stage of throat cancer indicates how far it has progressed from the initial site, which influences the treatment course.

Throat cancer diagnosis includes the following:

  • Biopsy — This involves taking a tissue sample from the affected area for analysis. Your doctor may do an incisional biopsy (cutting off a portion of affected tissue) or fine-needle aspiration (using a special needle and syringe).
  • Imaging tests — CT scans, X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), or barium swallow may be used in the diagnosis process.9
  • Scoping procedures — This involves inserting a scope into the nose or mouth to examine the affected area. These tests include laryngoscopy, pharyngoscopy, fluoroscopy, and panendoscopy.

Treatment For Throat Cancer

Treatment for throat cancers may vary depending on the type of cancer, affected area, and stage. 

Common treatment options include: 

  • Surgery Removal of the tumor by cutting off a part or the entire affected area
  • Chemotherapy — Use of drugs to kill cancer cells
  • Radiation therapy — Use of high energy rays to destroy the cancerous cells
  • Targeted therapy — Use of drugs that stop or slow the growth of cancer cells

Treatment for metastatic throat cancer may involve chemotherapy and radiation treatment, depending on where the cancer has spread. Some therapies for metastatic cancer are considered palliative, focusing on relieving symptoms and improving quality of life.

Immunotherapy is an upcoming treatment for throat cancer. It uses the body’s immune system to help fight off the cancer. 

Tips for Managing the Symptoms of Throat Cancer

Throat cancer symptoms and treatment side effects can be painful. Try these tips for managing your symptoms:

  • Avoid alcoholic drinks
  • Quit smoking
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Take pain medication to suppress the associated pain
  • Consult treatment specialists for advanced care options

Preventing Throat Cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, there’s no way to prevent throat cancer completely.7 However, you can take steps to lower your risk of developing it, including:

  • Quit smoking — Tobacco use is the biggest risk factor for developing throat cancer. Quit smoking or vaping and any other kind of tobacco use.
  • Reduce or eliminate alcohol — Alcohol use is also associated with throat cancer. Consider cutting back or eliminating alcohol from your diet.
  • Avoid workplace chemicals — If you’re routinely exposed to toxic chemicals, consider another job or take safety measures to protect yourself.
  • Get the HPV vaccine — HPV is a virus that can cause throat cancer. Get the vaccine to reduce your risk of getting either.
  • Tweak your diet and exercise — Eating a nutritious diet and getting enough exercise can keep you healthy and lower your cancer risk.

What is Throat Cancer?

Throat cancer is the abnormal growth of cells in the throat (pharynx) or voice box (larynx). There are three different types of throat cancer, named for where they first start growing in your throat:

  • Oropharyngeal cancer — Develops in the pharynx
  • Laryngeal cancer — Develops in the larynx
  • Hypopharyngeal cancer Develops at the bottom part of the pharynx

Throat cancer is a rare form of cancer in the United States. According to the National Cancer Institute, pharyngeal cancers account for around 3 percent of all cancer diagnoses. Laryngeal cancer accounts for about 0.7 percent of all cancer diagnoses.1


First-stage throat cancer can feel like a common cold, with symptoms including a sore throat, hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, and a cough. When the symptoms persist for over three weeks, you should see a doctor to be screened for throat cancer.

While there’s no single cause of throat cancer, several risk factors can make you more likely to develop it. Tobacco and alcohol use, HPV, certain genetic disorders, your diet, and what you’re exposed to at work can all increase your risk.

Your doctor will diagnose throat cancer with tests like imaging and biopsies. Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. To lower your risk of developing throat cancer, avoid tobacco and alcohol, get your HPV vaccine, and mind your diet and exercise routine.

Last updated on February 1, 2024
10 Sources Cited
Last updated on February 1, 2024
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
  1. Cancer Stat Facts: Laryngeal Cancer.” National Cancer Institute, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2023.
  2. Dysphagia (swallowing problems).” National Health Service, 2021.
  3. Throat cancer.” Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 2022.
  4. Risk Factors for Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancers,” American Cancer Society, 2021.
  5. HPV and Cancer.” National Cancer Institute, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2023.
  6. Body fatness and weight gain.” American Institute for Cancer Research, 2020.
  7. Can Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancers Be Prevented?” American Cancer Society, 2021.
  8. Association of Gastroesophageal Reflux With Malignancy of the Upper Aerodigestive Tract in Elderly Patients.” JAMA Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, American Medical Association, 2017.
  9. Barium Swallow.” National Library of Medicine, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2021.
  10. Major Risk Factors in Head and Neck Cancer: A Retrospective Analysis of 12-Year Experiences.” World Journal of Oncology, Elmer Press, 2018.
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