Signs & Symptoms of Throat Cancer

What are the Warning Signs of Throat Cancer?

Throat cancer is the abnormal growth of cells in the throat (pharynx) or voice box (larynx).

This type of cancer is rare 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

The three main types of throat cancer include:

  • Oropharyngeal cancer. Develops in the pharynx (throat)
  • Laryngeal cancer. Develops in the larynx (voice box)
  • Hypopharyngeal cancer. Develops at the bottom part of the pharynx (throat)

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

General symptoms to watch out for include:

  • A persistent sore throat
  • A persistent cough
  • Changes in voice (hoarseness)
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)2
  • Ear or jaw pain
  • Swelling/lump in the neck

Secondary signs and symptoms of throat cancer include:

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

Cancerous tumors in the larynx, or voice box, may make it difficult to speak. Cancerous tumors in the pharynx may cause problems with breathing, chewing, and swallowing.

What Causes Throat Cancer?

Cellular genetic abnormalities in your throat cause throat cancer. These mutations induce uncontrollable cell growth.3 

Accumulation of these cells in one area of your throat leads to tumor development.

The exact cause of the cell mutations related to throat cancer 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

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 larynx and hypopharynx cancers). Smokers are significantly more likely to develop these cancers than non-smokers.

In some studies, long-term exposure to secondhand smoking 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.

However, if both are used together, the risk of throat cancer is even higher.

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Vaping is not exclusively linked to throat cancer, but does increase your overall risk for cancer. 

2. Human papillomavirus (HPV) Infection

While HPV is most 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 seems to raise the risk of laryngeal and oropharyngeal cancer.6

People who eat more plant-based foods, such as non-starchy vegetables and whole fruit, can 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

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

6. Gastroesophageal reflux disease

When stomach acid backs up into the esophagus, this is known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

GERD may induce heartburn and increase the risk of esophageal cancer.8 GERD is also believed to increase a person's hypopharyngeal cancer risk, although further research is needed.

7. Occupational exposure

While at work, people may be exposed to sulfuric acid mist, nickel, wood dust, paint fumes, or asbestos which increases the risk of getting 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 work area.

8. Gender

Men are approximately five times more likely than women to develop laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers.

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

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 the age of 65 by the time the cancer is discovered.

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10. Race

Research has shown that race plays a role in the development of throat cancer.

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

What Does Throat Cancer Feel Like in the Beginning?

The early symptoms of throat cancer may be similar to those of a cold, including sore throat and hoarseness. 

Unlike cold symptoms that go away within a week, sore throat and hoarseness due to throat cancer will persist longer than two weeks.

You may begin to feel like food is getting stuck in your throat, accompanied by pain that becomes worse as cancer develops.

How Quickly Does Throat Cancer Develop?

Throat cancer may spread rapidly, so if you're worried, make an appointment to get examined. Throat cancer may develop in four stages:

  • Stage 0: The tumor has only affected the top layer of cells of the affected part.
  • 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 all lymph nodes and other organs

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

Symptoms of Metastatic Throat Cancer

Throat cancer that spreads rapidly to other parts of the body is known as metastatic cancer. This cancer often spreads to the lungs, bones, lips, and lymph nodes.

The symptoms of metastatic throat cancer may vary depending on the part of the body affected.

In addition to the common symptoms of throat cancer, metastatic throat cancer patients may experience the following:

  • Coughing up blood (if it spreads to the lungs)
  • Shortness of breath (if it spreads to the lungs)
  • Bone or joint pain or fractures (if it spreads to the bones)

Many other, less severe diseases may produce symptoms that are similar to those of metastatic throat cancer. If you begin to notice symptoms, consult your healthcare professional immediately.

When to See a Doctor 

If a person has any of the symptoms of throat cancer for more than three weeks, seeing a doctor for a diagnosis is the best step to take.

Seek immediate attention if you experience life-threatening symptoms such as difficulty breathing, eating, or a lump in the neck region.

The doctor will do tests to determine if the symptoms are due to throat cancer or something else and provide medical advice.

Diagnosing & Treating Throat Cancer 

There are several tests useful in cancer diagnosis. Many of the tests also help to determine the stage. 

The stage indicates how far the cancer has progressed from its initial site, which influences treatment options.

Throat cancer diagnosis includes the following:

  • Biopsy. This involves taking a tissue sample from the affected area for analysis. To get the sample for analysis, the 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. These tests include CT scans, X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), or barium swallow.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 its 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 cancer has spread.

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

Some therapies for metastatic cancer are considered palliative, focusing on relieving symptoms and improving quality of life.

Tips for Managing the Symptoms of Throat Cancer

Throat cancer symptoms and treatment side effects may cause pain and suffering, lowering your quality of life.

However, there are things you can do to manage the 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

Resources

Cancer Stat Facts: Laryngeal Cancer,” National Cancer Institute

Dysphagia (swallowing problems),” National Health Service (NHS-UK)

Throat cancer,” Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER)

Risk Factors for Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancers,” American Cancer Society

HPV and Cancer,” National cancer Institute

Body fatness and weight gain,” American Institute for Cancer Research

Can Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancers Be Prevented?,” American Cancer Society, 21 January 2021

Association of Gastroesophageal Reflux With Malignancy of the Upper Aerodigestive Tract in Elderly Patients,” American Medical Association, 21 December 2017

Barium Swallow,” U.S. National Library of Medicine

Major Risk Factors in Head and Neck Cancer: A Retrospective Analysis of 12-Year Experiences,” World Journal of Oncology, 26 June 2018

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