An Overview of Throat Cancer

Throat cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the throat. There are several types of throat cancer, and cancer can occur in different structures within the neck.

In the United States, about 1 in every 60 men and 1 in every 140 women are expected to develop head and neck cancer during their life. The risks are lower for other kinds of throat cancer—lifetime laryngeal cancer risk is approximately 1 in 190 men and 1 in 830 women. Compared to their counterparts, men, people over age 55, and White people are more likely to get these cancers. The five-year survival rate is over 60%.

This article discusses the types, symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of throat cancer.

Types of Throat Cancer

There are two main parts of the throat: the pharynx (general throat) and the larynx (voice box). Throat cancer can develop in either place.

Pharyngeal Cancer

Pharyngeal cancer is cancer of the pharynx. This is a hollow tube that connects the nasal cavity and the back of the mouth (oral cavity) to the trachea (windpipe) and esophagus (the muscular tube that connects to the stomach).

The pharynx is one long tube, but it is described as having three sections. Cancer can occur in any of the sections and is named by the zone where cancer begins to grow. These include:

  • Nasopharyngeal cancer: Nasopharyngeal cancer occurs in the nasopharynx—the top part of the throat, behind the nose. Fewer than 1 in 100,000 people in the United States have nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • Oropharyngeal cancer: Oropharyngeal cancer is cancer of the oropharynx—the middle part of the throat at the back of the mouth. This is the most common throat cancer.
  • Hypopharyngeal cancer: Hypopharyngeal cancer occurs in the bottom part of the throat called the hypopharynx. This cancer is rare in the United States, with fewer than 4,000 cases.

Laryngeal Cancer

The larynx is on the front lower part of the throat. It contains the vocal cords used for making sounds. Laryngeal cancers are named for the part of the larynx where they first grow. Laryngeal cancers may be identified as:

  • Supraglottic cancers come from the area right above the vocal cords. Approximately 35% of laryngeal cancers are supraglottic.
  • Glottic cancers start on the glottis (the vocal cord area). The majority (60%) of laryngeal cancers are glottic.
  • Subglottic cancers occur in the larynx below the vocal cords.


Symptoms of throat cancer may vary based on tumor location and type. Many symptoms are easy to ignore, especially if they aren't causing severe distress. But it's important to get medical attention if you develop any bothersome symptoms affecting your mouth or throat.

Common symptoms of throat cancer include:

Symptoms may come and go. "Persistent" doesn't always mean constant. For example, you may have a sore throat for a week that goes away for a few days and then returns. If you experience intermittent or constant symptoms for two weeks or longer, you should make an appointment to see a healthcare professional. A delay in your diagnosis may affect your treatment outcome.

Causes and Risk Factors

Throat cancer causes and risk factors
Illustration by Nusha Ashjaee, Verywell

Smoking is a well-known cause of throat cancer. Smoking exposes your body to carcinogens, which are chemicals that cause cells in the body to become cancerous. Oral tobacco products also raise your risk for head and neck cancers.

Other risk factors and causes of throat cancer include:

  • Alcohol consumption
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) often spread via sex
  • Betel nut chewing
  • Overweight/obesity
  • Age over 55
  • Diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • Some inherited genetic conditions

Some of these factors can independently cause throat cancer, and can also work as cocarcinogens—which means that they increase the ability of carcinogens (like tobacco) to cause cancer. For example, alcohol enhances the ability of tobacco to cause cancer.


Your symptoms may prompt a throat cancer diagnosis. At your medical appointment, your healthcare provider will review your health history to determine whether you are at risk for throat cancer. If you are a smoker, drink alcohol, or have other habits that may be unfavorable to your health, it's important to let them know.

During your physical exam, your provider will feel your throat and the area around it for lumps or other abnormalities. If you have signs of throat cancer, your healthcare provider may refer you to an otolaryngologist, also called an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) specialist.

Diagnostic Procedures and Staging

Your ENT may examine your throat with a procedure called laryngoscopy. During this procedure, a thin, fiber-optic scope (laryngoscope) is fed down the throat so the doctor can see the back of your throat, larynx, and vocal cords.

A tissue sample may be taken during your exam if any suspicious areas are discovered. This is called a biopsy, and it can be examined with a microscope to determine whether there are cancer cells in the sample.

If cancer is found, it is necessary to determine whether it has spread to nearby tissues or organs. This process is called staging. The stage of throat cancer affects which treatment method will be recommended for you. Your provider will let you know if you need additional testing.


Several factors are considered when a treatment plan is developed for throat cancer.

Some factors that guide treatment include:

  • Age
  • Overall general health of the patient
  • Type and location of the cancer
  • Whether cancer has spread

There are multiple potential types of treatment for throat cancer, including:

  • Surgical removal may be done in all stages of this condition. It can sometimes cure early-stage throat cancer. Surgery can involve laser therapy to remove cancerous tissue, which may be invasive and extensive. 
  • Radiation therapy is a primary treatment, and it's sometimes used after surgery to eliminate any remaining cancer cells or to remove cancerous tissue that could not be removed during surgery.
  • Chemotherapy may be used to treat the disease. It is typically prescribed in conjunction with other treatment methods, like surgery or radiation therapy, as neoadjuvant or adjuvant therapy


Throat cancer can develop in any part of the pharynx or larynx. It is commonly linked to HPV, drinking alcohol, and smoking. However, it can occur even without these risk factors. If you experience any symptoms, be sure to see your healthcare provider. Treatments are available, and the majority of people survive at least five years.

A Word From Verywell

Any changes to your mouth, nose, or throat can be frightening, especially if you are suspecting cancer. There are excellent treatments for throat cancers, especially when caught early. Be sure your healthcare team—including your dentist—knows about your smoking, alcohol use, and other lifestyle choices that can increase your risk of cancer. See your providers regularly, and be sure to mention any symptoms or concerns.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does throat cancer feel like in the beginning?

    Throat cancer symptoms may include sore throat, voice changes, difficulty swallowing, swollen neck lymph nodes, and weight loss. Any of these symptoms lasting two weeks or more need to be evaluated by a medical professional.

  • Does throat cancer develop quickly?

    Throat cancers, like other head and neck cancers, can grow quite rapidly. If you have symptoms or concerns, be sure to see your healthcare provider soon.

  • What can be mistaken for throat cancer?

    The symptoms of throat cancer overlap with many other diseases and conditions. However, due to the serious nature of cancer, any symptoms should be evaluated rapidly by a healthcare provider.

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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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