Symptoms of Throat Cancer

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Throat cancer is a type of head and neck cancer that occurs in the pharynx or the larynx. The throat is important to many vital functions like eating, breathing, and speaking, so symptoms of throat cancer may get in the way of daily activities.

When cancerous tumors develop in the larynx—or voice box—it can render you unable to speak. When cancerous tumors develop in the pharynx, it can disrupt your breathing, chewing, or swallowing.

Throat Cancer Symptoms

Laura Porter / Verywell

Frequent Symptoms of Throat Cancer

Throat cancer symptoms are largely determined by the location of the tumor in the head and neck region. Local spread of throat cancer to nearby tissues in the pharynx and larynx can lead to these common symptoms:

  • Persistent sore throat: This is the most common early warning sign of throat cancer. Cancer in the pharynx can cause pain or discomfort in your throat that doesn’t go away with swallowing.
  • Voice changes: Cancer in the larynx can change your voice, causing you to sound more hoarse or husky. You may also experience trouble pronouncing certain words or sounds. 
  • Pain or difficulty swallowing: Trouble swallowing is one of the first reported symptoms of throat cancer. Oftentimes people experience pain while swallowing or a burning sensation when chewing and swallowing food.
  • Swollen lymph nodes in your neck: Swollen lymph nodes are a sign that your body is fighting a disease so it's not surprising that some people feel a lump in their neck by an enlarged lymph node. In fact, this is a common early sign of throat cancer, especially if the lump is slowly growing and not going away. 
  • Weight loss: Like all cancer, unexplained weight loss is a common symptom. It is important to note that weight loss may further be exacerbated by difficulty eating due to painful swallowing.

Rare Symptoms of Throat Cancer

To further protect yourself, it may be a good idea to learn about some less common signs of throat cancer, like:

  • Nose bleeds
  • Earache
  • Headaches
  • Coughing up blood
  • Chronic sinus infections
  • Persistent nasal congestions
  • Persistent bad breath
  • Stiff jaw
  • Generalized swelling in the eyes, jaw, throat, or neck

These symptoms are non-specific, which means they can be attributed to several illnesses like the common cold, so you may be less inclined to think throat cancer, but if they persist you might want to see your dentist or a healthcare professional. 

These symptoms are also less common because they develop with advanced disease. Still, the aggressiveness of throat cancer differs among people so these rare symptoms may be more common or develop more quickly in some people than others. If eating, speaking, or swallowing become increasingly difficult seek immediate medical attention as these symptoms may be life threatening.

Of note, advanced disease may also lead to metastasis—the spread of cancer throughout the body. This precipitates a whole host of symptoms depending on where the cancer is spread. For example, throat cancer that metastasizes to the lungs may cause shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, whereas metastasis to the bone may cause bone pain.

Complications of Throat Cancer

Much of the complications of throat cancer are attributed to surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. Although, difficulty eating or talking and facial or neck disfigurement are two common complications. 

Depending on the extent of cancer that needs to be removed, nearby structures may be compromised during surgery affecting the voice box and soft tissues of the pharynx, exacerbating your symptoms. 

Radiation therapy can increase your likelihood of developing dental caries and periodontal disease, as well as mucositis, thickened secretions, mucosal infections, pain, and sensory disruptions in the mouth and throat areas.

When to Seek Medical Attention

If you notice anything unusual about the way you feel or how your body functions—especially if the abnormality persists or worsens—contact a healthcare professional. Although cancer may be unlikely in many instances, seeing a healthcare professional can result in an accurate diagnosis and treatment of your symptoms. If you experience life-threatening symptoms—like trouble breathing or eating or if you notice a large lump in the head or neck region, particularly one that is causing you to have difficulty swallowing—seek immediate medical attention.

A Word From Verywell

Many of the aforementioned symptoms will not result in a diagnosis of throat cancer. Still, it is important to remain vigilant about changes to the color and texture of your mouth and throat, especially with cancer rates on the rise, due to recent increases in tobacco product use. It is easy to miss symptoms of throat cancer. To help protect yourself, use a mirror to periodically check the inside of your mouth and throat, and also schedule regular dental checkups.

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  1. American Cancer Society. Signs and symptoms of laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers. Updated November 27, 2017.

  2. Sroussi HY, Epstein JB, Bensadoun RJ, et al. Common oral complications of head and neck cancer radiation therapy: mucositis, infections, saliva change, fibrosis, sensory dysfunctions, dental caries, periodontal disease, and osteoradionecrosis. Cancer Med. 2017;6(12):2918-2931. doi:10.1002/cam4.1221