Throat cancer is cancer that develops in a person’s throat. Signs of throat cancer include vocal changes, difficulty swallowing and breathing, and a lump on the neck.

There are two main types of throat cancer: pharyngeal cancer and laryngeal cancer.

Pharyngeal cancer develops in the pharynx, which is the part of the throat that sits behind the mouth and nasal cavity. Laryngeal cancer develops in the voice box, or larynx. The larynx is a tubular structure that sits at the top of the windpipe.

Throat cancer is uncommon in the United States. In fact, according to the National Cancer Institute, pharyngeal cancers — along with oral cancer — account for around 3% of all cancer diagnoses. Laryngeal cancer accounts for around 0.7% of all cancer diagnoses.

Keep reading for more information on the symptoms, signs, and causes of throat cancer. This article also provides information on when to see a doctor.

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An individual’s symptoms may depend on the stage of throat cancer. The stage describes the cancer’s spread and severity.

Although doctors may stage pharyngeal cancer and laryngeal cancer slightly differently, typically they use five stages of throat cancer, from 0 to 4. Symptoms may change as the cancer advances through the early to the later stages.

Early stages

The early symptoms and signs of throat cancer may vary depending on the part of the throat it affects. However, some common symptoms include:

  • Vocal changes: A person’s voice may become quieter or sound huskier. People can also develop slurred speech or have difficulty pronouncing certain words.
  • Hoarse voice: A raspy, strained voice is one of the most common symptoms of throat cancer.
  • Difficulty swallowing: Some people may experience a burning sensation or pain in the throat when swallowing. They may also feel that food is becoming stuck in the throat.

Advanced stages

As throat cancer becomes advanced, a person may experience the following symptoms:

  • A lump on the neck: This can indicate a swollen lymph node. Stage 3 and 4 cancer can spread to the lymph nodes.
  • Weight loss: This may be related to difficulty swallowing food.
  • Difficulty breathing: If throat cancer blocks the airway, it can become difficult for a person to breathe.

A person with throat cancer may also experience:

  • difficulty moving the tongue or opening the mouth
  • bad breath
  • chest infections
  • persistent white patches on the tongue or the lining of the mouth
  • persistent coughing, which may produce blood
  • nosebleeds
  • headaches
  • earache, although this is rare

It is possible for a person to mistake the signs and symptoms of throat cancer for those of other conditions. A person should therefore see a doctor if they experience any symptoms of throat cancer that do not go away.

Although throat cancers can affect anyone, certain factors can increase the risk of this condition. Some major risk factors include:

Some other risk factors include:

  • being over 65 years of age
  • being male
  • being of Asian descent
  • having poor nutrition, particularly a lack of fruit and vegetables and overconsumption of processed meats
  • having poor dental hygiene
  • exposure to asbestos or coal dust
  • exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus
  • having Plummer-Vinson syndrome
  • having certain genetic syndromes

Several other conditions can cause symptoms that are similar to those of throat cancer. These conditions include:

A person who is unsure of the cause of their symptoms may want to contact a doctor.

A person should contact a doctor if they experience any of the symptoms of throat cancer for more than 3 weeks. The doctor will conduct tests to establish whether the symptoms are due to cancer or another cause.

There are several tools a doctor can use to test for throat cancer. They typically start with a physical examination and a discussion of the person’s symptoms.

If they suspect throat cancer, they may order a laryngoscopy. A laryngoscope is an instrument that allows a doctor to see inside a person’s throat in order to identify any abnormalities.

During a laryngoscopy, the doctor may take a biopsy of the throat tissue. They will then send the tissue sample to a laboratory technician, who will examine it for signs of cancer.

There are three types of biopsy:

  • a conventional biopsy, which involves cutting away a piece of the tissue
  • an endoscopic biopsy, which involves removing a piece of tissue using a flexible tube, or endoscope, inserted through the mouth
  • a fine needle aspiration, which uses a needle to extract cells from a tumor

Cancer staging

If the biopsy returns a positive result for throat cancer, the doctor assigns it a stage that indicates how advanced the cancer is.

The five stages of throat cancer are:

  • Stage 0: Abnormal cells are present within the lining of the throat.
  • Stage 1: A tumor is present and measures 2 centimeters (cm) or less. It has not spread to a lymph node.
  • Stage 2: The tumor is 2–4 cm. It has not spread to a lymph node.
  • Stage 3: The tumor is larger than 4 cm or has spread to a lymph node on the same side of the neck. If the cancer has spread to a lymph node, it is smaller than 3 cm.
  • Stage 4: The cancer has spread to several lymph nodes or other tissues and organs within the body.

Throat cancer is a rare type of cancer that develops in a small percentage of people each year.

Although symptoms can vary, they may include vocal changes, difficulty swallowing, a lump on the neck, and difficulty breathing.

A person may wish to contact a doctor if they experience any symptoms of throat cancer for longer than 3 weeks.