Throat cancer is a type of head and neck cancer that may affect the larynx, the area of the throat used for speaking; the nasopharynx, the area of the throat behind the nose; or the oropharynx, the middle part of the throat. Symptoms vary depending on the location of the cancer, but may include pain in the throat or ears, trouble breathing or swallowing, or changes in the voice. If you experience any of the symptoms described below, contact your doctor, who may conduct a physical examination of the head, neck, and throat, or take scans or biopsies to check for signs of throat cancer.
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Throat cancer typically refers to cancers arising from tissue in the throat, voicebox or tonsils. Cancer in these locations can cause a variety of symptoms, dending on the exact location and size of the tumor. Signs and symptoms of throat cancer may be nonspecific and overlap with symptoms from other, less serious conditions. Tobacco and moderate to heavy alcohol use are the primary risk factor for throat cancer. Infection with certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) is linked to an increased risk for some types of throat cancer.
1. Sore Throat and Difficulty Swallowing
A persistent sore throat and difficult or painful swallowing can signal the presence of cancer in the throat. These symptoms may be accompanied by the sensation that something is stuck in the throat. A sore throat, or pharyngitis, is a very common ailment. It is most frequently due to a viral infection of the throat or, less commonly, strep throat. Infectious pharyngitis typically resolves within a week or so. A persistent sore throat, which may be accompanied by difficult or painful swallowing, should trigger a visit to the doctor. Swallowing difficulties due to throat cancer often become more severe as the cancer grows.
2. Voice Change or Hoarseness
A voice change or hoarseness can signal the presence of throat cancer, particularly cancer of the larynx. However, this symptom is not specific for throat cancer. Laryngitis, a viral infection of the voice box, commonly causes hoarseness or a change in the sound of your voice. With laryngitis, however, the change is short-lived and resolves when the infection clears. A persistent or progressive change in the voice requires medical evaluation to determine the cause.
A lump on the neck
If you notice a lump on your neck that you've never felt before, it could be a sign of throat cancer. "This means the tumor most likely metastasized from the throat to the neck," says Eric Genden, MD, chairman of ENT at Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. Lumps are most commonly felt right under the jaw, he says, but they can also present elsewhere on the neck. These are other cancer symptoms women ignore and cancer signs men tend to overlook.
3. You or your partner have HPV
It's well-known that human papillomavirus (HPV) can increase your risk of developing cervical cancer if you're a woman, but in the past decade, oral cancers linked to HPV have increased at least fourfold in both men and women, according to The Mount Sinai Hospital. The CDC estimates about 70 percent of oropharynx cancers (tumors in the back of the throat) may be caused by HPV.
4. Feeling like something's in your throat
If it always feels like you've got something stuck in your throat (this is called "foreign body sensation" in the medical world), it could mean a tumor is blocking part of your throat. "This is a very common presentation. People sense there's something there but they can't see it," says Dr. Genden. Difficulty swallowing can also be a throat cancer symptom.
5. Coughing up blood
Many conditions other than cancer can cause you to cough or spit up blood, such as pneumonia or bronchitis; however, throat cancer can, too. Coughed-up blood is usually bright red in color and looks bubbly from mixing with air and mucus.
6. Persistent sore throat
If you're not sick but just can't seem to kick that scratchy sore throat, it could be a sign of throat cancer. Tumors that form in the area below the vocal cords often cause this symptom, according to the American Cancer Society.
Causes and risk factors for throat cancer
Men are more likely to develop throat cancer than women. Certain lifestyle habits increase the risk of developing cancer of the throat, including:
- excessive alcohol consumption
- vitamin A deficiency
- exposure to asbestos
- poor dental hygiene
Throat cancer is also associated with certain types of human papillomavirus infections (HPV). HPV is a sexually transmitted virus. HPV infection is a risk factor for certain oropharyngeal cancers, according to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
Throat cancer has also been linked to other types of cancers. In fact, some people diagnosed with throat cancer are diagnosed with esophageal, lung, or bladder cancer at the same time. This is typically because cancers often have the same risk factors, or because cancer that begins in one part of the body can spread throughout the body in time.