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 that sits on top of the trachea. 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 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 healthcare provider and your dentist. If you believe that you are having symptoms or are at risk for throat cancer, you should talk to your healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does throat cancer cause a pain in the throat?

    Yes, throat cancer can cause pain in the throat. It is usually felt while swallowing which can make eating food difficult. There are also cases where the lips or inside of the mouth can have feelings of pain and tenderness.

  • Are throat cancer and esophageal cancer the same?

    No, throat cancer and esophageal cancer are not the same, even if many of their symptoms overlap. Each cancer is differentiated by the location that it starts in. For example, esophageal cancer begins in the upper and lower areas of the esophagus, while the four types of throat cancer start in the larynx, pharynx, behind the throat and nose, and behind the mouth.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Cleveland Clinic. Oropharyngeal cancer.

  3. Mark AM. Oral and throat cancer: What you should know. J Am Dent Assoc. 2019;150(4):324. doi:0.1016/j.adaj.2019.01.034

  4. American Cancer Society. Signs and symptoms of laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers.

  5. Chowdary SD, Sekhar PC, Kattapagari KK, Mani Deepthi CH, Neelima D, Reddy BVR. A study to assess expression of human papillomavirus types 16 and 18 in oral squamous cell carcinoma using polymerase chain reaction. J Oral Maxillofac Pathol. 2018;22(3):347-352. doi:10.4103/jomfp.JOMFP_139_17

  6. American Cancer Society. Survival rates for oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer.

  7. Lee HM, Okuda KS, González FE, Patel V. Current perspectives on nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2019;1164:11-34. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-22254-3_2

  8. American Cancer Society. Signs and symptoms of nasopharyngeal cancer.

  9. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Esophageal Cancer.

Additional Reading

By Kristin Hayes, RN
Kristin Hayes, RN, is a registered nurse specializing in ear, nose, and throat disorders for both adults and children.