The 4 Types of Throat Cancer

For many years, scientists believed that the biggest risk factor for developing throat cancer was the use of alcohol and tobacco. However, studies also have shown a link between throat cancer and HPV infection, perhaps spread via oral sex. In addition, sun exposure, poor oral hygiene, radiation exposure to the head and neck, and chemical exposure are also possible risk factors for developing throat cancer.

Female doctor examining female patient with tongue depressor
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While the throat may seem like a small area, it is actually comprised of several regions, like the larynx and the oropharynx. Thus, different types of throat cancers are named after their place of origination, both the location of the body and the cell type.

For example, throat cancer that begins in the squamous cells of the pharynx would be called squamous cell carcinoma of the pharynx. (Squamous cells are the most superficial skin cells and are often described as looking like scales under a microscope.) The vast majority of throat cancer is squamous cell carcinoma

Many of the symptoms of throat cancer are similar to that of other less severe illnesses and can include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Voice changes
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Swelling of the eyes, jaw, throat or neck
  • Bleeding in the mouth or nose
  • Chronic cough
  • Ear pain
  • Lumps in the neck or throat that aren't swollen lymph nodes

Laryngeal Cancer

Laryngeal cancer is cancer of the larynx, an organ in the front of the neck between the esophagus and the trachea (sometimes called the voice box). The larynx assists in breathing, speaking, and even swallowing.

When the cells that make up the tissue of the larynx begin to multiply and divide at an unusual rate, it is called laryngeal cancer. Most laryngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, or cancer that originates in the first layer of skin cells. Symptoms include a cough that does not go away, earaches, a sore throat, hoarseness, and other voice changes.

Pharyngeal Cancer

The pharynx is the cone-shaped passageway portion of the throat that begins behind the nose and stretches about five inches before it ends at the esophagus and trachea. Pharynx cancer is sometimes further classified as cancer of the nasopharynx, oropharynx, or hypopharynx, depending on its exact location. The nasopharynx is the upper part of the throat behind the nose. The oropharynx, located below the nasopharynx, is the part of the throat at the back of the mouth behind the oral cavity. It includes the soft palate, the back third of the tongue, the side and back walls of the throat, and the tonsils. The hypopharynx is the most inferior portion of the pharynx, being the continuation of the oropharynx superiorly and both the larynx and esophagus inferiorly. About 90% of pharyngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. They tend to affect males more than females.

Oropharyngeal Cancer

Oropharyngeal cancer is throat cancer that begins in the area just behind the mouth. This area involves the back of the tongue, the soft palate, the tonsils, and the area behind the wisdom teeth.

Oropharyngeal cancer is usually diagnosed through a biopsy of tissue. It is treated using surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. The prognosis for oropharyngeal cancer depends on the severity, or stage of the cancer.

Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Nasopharyngeal cancer originates in the back of the throat and behind the nose (the upper portion of the pharynx). Two risk factors set nasopharyngeal cancer apart from other throat cancers—being of Asian ancestry and exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus.

Symptoms are similar to other throat cancers with the addition of nosebleeds and hearing loss. Tests used to diagnose nasopharyngeal cancer include MRI, CT Scan, PET Scan, and tissue biopsy. Treatment includes surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

A Word From Verywell

While throat cancer can be a fatal illness, if caught early, most cases can be cured. For this reason, you should keep regular appointments with your doctor and your dentist. If you believe that you are having symptoms or are at risk for throat cancer, you should talk to your doctor.

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