A constant sore throat, swelling in the neck, and trouble swallowing are just some of the symptoms and signs of throat cancer. You may notice them early on, though it is possible to have throat cancer and not know it until the disease interferes with basic functions like eating, breathing, and speaking.
Symptoms of throat cancer can very depending on its location. When cancerous tumors develop in the voice box, it can render you unable to speak. When throat cancer develops in the pharynx, it can disrupt your breathing, chewing, or swallowing.
This article reviews throat cancer symptoms and signs, the types of throat cancer that may be causing them, and complications that can arise. It will also help you know when it's time to see a healthcare provider.
Types of Throat Cancer
Throat cancer symptoms are largely determined by the location of the tumor in the head and neck. Different throat cancers affect these locations, which include:
- Laryngeal cancer, a cancer of the voice box (larynx)
- Nasopharyngeal cancer, in the upper pharynx at the back of the throat and behind the nose
- Oropharyngeal cancer, affecting the pharynx just behind the mouth
- Hypopharynx cancer, found in the lowest part of the throat
Most throat cancers are diagnosed as squamous cell carcinomas, which affect the skin tissues of the mouth, nose, and throat.1 This type of cancer accounts for about 90% of all head and neck cancers.Different Types of Cancer
Common Throat Cancer Symptoms and Signs
Local spread of throat cancer to nearby tissues in the pharynx and larynx can lead to these common symptoms:2
- 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. People often 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. A lump in the neck from an enlarged lymph node, especially when it grows slowly and doesn't go away, is a common early sign of throat cancer.
- 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 and Signs of Throat Cancer
There are a number of less common signs and symptoms of throat cancer. They include:
- Nose bleeds
- Coughing up blood and phlegm
- Chronic sinus infections
- Persistent nasal congestions
- Persistent bad breath
- Stiff jaw
- Generalized swelling in the eyes, jaw, throat, or neck
These symptoms are less common because they develop with advanced throat cancer. Keep in mind that throat cancer symptoms differ among individuals and may develop more or less quickly.
Advanced disease may also lead to metastasis, or the spread of cancer throughout the body. For example, a throat cancer that spreads to the lungs may cause shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, whereas metastasis to the bone may cause bone pain.
Some throat cancer symptoms can be mistaken for conditions like the common cold. If they persist, or if you have trouble eating, speaking, or swallowing, contact your healthcare provider for a diagnosis. Early treatment may lead to better outcomes.
Complications of Throat Cancer
Most of the complications of throat cancer are attributed to surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. Treatment can lead to difficulty eating or talking, such as with laryngeal cancer, or to changes in appearance in the face and neck.
For example, depending on the cancer that needs to be removed, nearby structures of the head and neck may be affected during surgery for laryngeal cancer or the soft tissues of the pharynx.
Radiation therapy can increase the risk of complications including:3
- Tooth decay and periodontal disease
- Mucositis and thickened secretions
- Mucosal infections
- Sensory changes in the mouth and throat areas
When to Seek Medical Attention
Throat cancer symptoms and signs often appear similar to those of other illnesses. Cancer may be unlikely in many cases, but seeing a healthcare provider is important for a diagnosis.
You'll also want to consider a throat cancer evaluation if you know you have risk factors including:
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), with its increased risk of laryngeal cancer4
- Human papillomavirus infection (HPV), linked to cancers of the pharynx
- Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), associated with nasopharyngeal cancers
- A history of smoking
- Excessive alcohol use
A Word From Verywell
You can have throat cancer and not know it because it is easy to miss symptoms of throat cancer. Routine dental exams can help to catch signs of throat cancer, as will your own awareness about changes in your mouth, nose and throat.