What Does Throat Cancer Look Like?

Throat cancer is a subgroup of head and neck cancers. It typically refers to cancers that originate in the pharynx (the throat). Thickened white patches on the lining of the throat are usually the earliest signs of cancer or a precancerous condition in the throat.

The most common type of throat cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). This and other types of throat cancers are most often caused by environmental factors, including smoking or chewing tobacco. Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) is an increasing cause as well. Additional exposures that increase the risk for throat cancers include alcohol and betel quid, a stimulant used in Asia.

Sings of Throat Cancer

Verywell / Katie Kerpel

According to the National Cancer Institute, there were more than 53,000 cases of oral and pharynx cancer in 2020. Approximately 10,000 patients who have been diagnosed with these cancers died. The five-year survival rate for these cancers is about 66%.

This article reviews the appearance of several types of throat cancers and briefly describes their symptoms

A White Patch

Some throat cancers begin as oral leukoplakia, a general term for a white lesion in the mouth of an unknown cause. 

Leukoplakias are premalignant lesions, which means they’re not cancerous yet, but could develop into cancer. About 3% to 17.5% of these lesions are or will become cancerous in 15 years, while others go away independently.

Common symptoms of oral leukoplakia include a persistent cough and sore throat lasting for more than three weeks. 

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Toxic leukoplakia of the oral mucosa in 62-year-old man. Malignancy was excluded histologically.

Klaus D. Peter, Gummersbach, Germany

A Red Patch

Other throat and mouth cancers show up as red patches called erythroplakias. These are rare, isolated, velvety patches in the mouth and/or throat that typically show up in older patients.

Erythroplakia lesions are usually premalignant, but most of these red patches become cancerous, so it’s important to get them checked out. They typically affect middle-aged and elderly people, and are usually linked to tobacco and alcohol use.

Sometimes, lesions are a mix of red and white, referred to as erythroleukoplakias or “speckled leukoplakias.” Although the lesions most commonly occur on the floor of the tongue, they can also develop on tissues behind the back teeth, including the upper throat.

Throat Ulcers

A classic sign of oral cancer is a persistent rough patch that looks like a sore and has a raised border. Unlike some ulcers and other lesions like canker sores, these are minimally painful.

A Lump in the Throat

A primary tumor of the throat can appear as a nodular mass on the floor of the mouth, tongue, tonsil, or wall of the throat. The mass will tend to be irregular, fixed, and relatively painless, but can interfere with swallowing and make you feel like you have something caught in your throat. This is most common in people with a long history of smoking.

A Lump in the Neck

Metastasis is the spread of cancer from its original location. Head and neck cancers can spread through the lymphatic system, which is another circulatory system of the body. In the lymphatic system, fluid flows to lymph nodes, where white blood cells act to remove or neutralize foreign substances and invaders such as bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells.

If throat cancer spreads through the lymph vessels, it will likely land in the lymph nodes of the neck. There, it can produce non-tender masses (lymphadenopathy) and then seed new tumors in other parts of the body.

When a primary tumor grows to a large size, it can cause difficulty swallowing or talking, earaches, headaches, spitting up blood, and sometimes partial airway obstruction.

A Swollen Tongue

Some throat cancers, specifically those associated with a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, cause a swollen tongue.

Infection with HPV is one of the major causes of throat cancer. About 10% of men and 3.6% of women have oral HPV. Many cases clear on their own, but some persist for years, which is when cancer can develop.

HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers are limited to the throat, while those caused by smoking, tobacco use, or other environmental triggers are found in the mouth and lips as well. 

The characteristic symptoms of HPV-associated throat cancer include a swollen tongue, tiny lumps inside the mouth, and mouth numbness. The persistence of symptoms is a telltale sign, particularly in younger people who do not smoke.

Human papillomavirus is an infection that we can prevent. The HPV vaccine is very safe and effective at preventing infections, genital warts, and precancers.

Hardened Tissues

Another type of throat cancer, submucous fibrosis, is defined by the hardening of mucosal tissues. It is most often caused by the chewing of betel nut in Southeast Asian cultures, but also sometimes seen in people who chew tobacco. 

Submucous fibrosis is typically a precancerous disorder, but can become malignant in between 1.5% and 15% of cases.

These lesions typically start in the mouth and gums, but can also involve the throat. They can cause burning sensations after eating spicy foods, and cause pain when eating and difficulty opening the mouth.

Advanced Symptoms

Coughing up blood is extremely rare. It can result from timor cells eroding into blood vessels. This is a sign of end-stage disease with a grim prognosis. An additional symptom is loose teeth, which can develop as the tumor spreads to the bones of the jaw and teeth.

You may also notice changes in the voice if cancer spreads to the larynx. Large primary tumors can prevent swallowing, leading to poor nutrition. Weight loss and persistent fatigue may result from this or be the result of widespread metastasis.

A Word From Verywell

Symptoms alone cannot diagnose throat cancer. If you’re worried about cancers of the head and neck, perform periodic oral self-exams. Making regular dental visits can also be a good way to monitor for any unusual growths or lesions.

A diagnosis of throat cancer is made after much testing and examination by your doctor. Tests will include a physical exam, where your doctor will use their hands to feel for swollen lymph nodes and other nodules. They’ll also test to see if you have HPV.

They will do an endoscopy (a procedure in which a tiny camera is fed into your mouth through a tube), a biopsy of any suspicious lesions, and imaging like a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

If you’re a smoker and have unusual or persistent symptoms aligned with those above, speak to your doctor about getting further testing.

8 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.
  1. National Cancer Institute. Oropharyngeal cancer treatment (adult) (PDQ®)–patient version.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HPV and oropharyngeal cancer.

  3. National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program. Oral cavity and pharynx cancer—cancer stat facts.

  4. World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer. Leukoplakia.

  5. World Health Organization Interational Agency for Research on Cancer. Erythroplakia.

  6. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. Reasons to get vaccinated against HPV.

  7. Shih YH, Wang TH, Shieh TM, Tseng YH. Oral submucous fibrosis: a review on etiopathogenesis, diagnosis, and therapy. Int J Mol Sci. 2019;20(12):2940. doi:10.3390/ijms20122940

  8. American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons. Warning signs of oral cancer

By Jennifer Welsh
Jennifer Welsh is a Connecticut-based science writer and editor with over ten years of experience under her belt. She’s previously worked and written for WIRED Science, The Scientist, Discover Magazine, LiveScience, and Business Insider.