Throat Cancer: Causes, Symptoms And Diagnosis

throat cancer

A rare cancer, throat cancer is a type of head and neck cancer. The throat comprises of oropharynx, hypopharynx, nasopharynx, and larynx. Cancer in one or all of these parts of the throat is known as throat cancer. Depending on the part of the throat affected, throat cancer is divided into – pharyngeal cancer and laryngeal cancer. Pharyngeal cancer is a type of cancer that affects the pharynx, which is a narrow tube that connects your nose to the windpipe. Laryngeal cancer is the cancer of the larynx or voice box and is one of the top 10 leading causes of cancer in men[1]. Moreover, men are more likely to develop throat cancer as compared to women. Let’s try to understand more about this cancer by shedding light on the  causes and symptoms of throat cancer.

Causes Of Throat Cancer

Researchers have found smoking to be one of the primary risk factors for throat cancer[2]. However, there are a few other factors which can up your risk of cancer. These include:

-Excessive alcohol consumption

-HPV infection due to exposure to human Papillomavirus virus via oral sex

-Exposure to asbestos (which is seen in people working in cement manufacturing industry)

-Lack of proper nutrition or malnutrition

-Poor dental hygiene

Smoking And Throat Cancer: How Is It Linked?

Both smoking and smokeless tobacco increase the chances of developing cancer in the mouth and throat. All forms of smoking, such as cigars, cigarettes, and pipes, are linked to cancer. Tobacco smoke can not only cause cancer of the mouth and throat but also the lungs, bladder and other major organs of the body. Pipe smoking is further associated with lesions in the lips where the pipe comes in direct contact with the tissue. Smokeless tobacco, on the other hand, is linked with cancers of the cheeks, gums and the inner surface of the lips.

Smoking can not only put you at risk of cancer but also hamper your immune function. The chemicals in cigarette smoke can weaken the body’s immune system, rendering it harder to kill cancer cells. It results in cancer cells growing at a faster pace and the immune system being ineffective in stopping the growth. Moreover, these harmful chemicals can change or damage a cell’s DNA[3]. DNA is said to be the instruction manual of a cell that controls its functioning. When it gets damaged, a cell can begin to grow out of control and lead to a cancer/tumor. 

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Throat cancer that originates in the squamous cells can penetrate deeper tissues including the muscles. Some types of thyroid cancers can instantly invade nearby structures, such as the trachea. If it is left untreated, the enlarging mass of cells can compress the trachea and thereby cause breathing problems. Throat cancer has a higher chance of metastasizing or spreading to other parts of the main body, including tissues or organs such as the lungs.

Symptoms Of Throat Cancer

When it comes to cancer it may be difficult to diagnose a cancer based on the early signs and symptoms. And the same is the case with throat cancer. The signs and symptoms of throat cancer are multifold. Some of the common and key main symptoms[4]include:

-Persistent cough

-Changes in voice; such as hoarseness and not speaking clearly

-Difficulty swallowing

-Ear pain

-Feeling of lump in the throat

-Sore throat that does not heal

-Weight loss

Other symptoms of throat cancer (which may be seen in the later stages of throat cancer) may include: 

-Blood-flecked phlegm

-Sensation that something is always stuck in the throat

-Throat pain

-Difficulty in breathing

-Swollen lymph glands

-Gastrointestinal disorders, such as excessive reflux, diarrhea or constipation

If these signs and symptoms are experienced by a person, it is imperative to take immediate action to consult a doctor and get tested. Since some of the symptoms of throat cancer mirror the symptoms of throat infection, many people do not pay enough attention to the symptoms. However, it is crucial to consult your doctor if any of these symptoms do not improve for two to three weeks as early detection can play a key role in effective treatment (of cancer, if diagnosed).

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How Is Throat Cancer Diagnosed?

The first thing your doctor may ask during your appointment is your medical history and symptoms. Post this, physical examination of your throat may be conducted with the help of a mirror to examine the larynx. To check for throat cancer, an indirect laryngoscopy may be done. Also known as video-stroboscopy, it is a specialised test where a small tube with a camera at the tip is passed through the nose and down the throat to view the larynx and record vocal cord movements onto videotape. If the test reveals abnormalities, then biopsy (a small sample from your throat is sent for examination) may be advised.

Other tests that may be recommended by our doctor based on the symptoms include X-rays, ultrasound, CT scan, MRI scan, PET scan and some routine blood tests. In some cases,  thyroid scan, which is a special X-ray of the thyroid following injection of a radioactive material, is also recommended.

Bottomline: If diagnosed early, throat cancer has high survival rates. It may not be curable once cancer cells spread to parts of the body beyond the neck and head. Early diagnosis leads to better outcomes. So it is wise to not ignore the symptoms and stay away from the factors that can up your risk of throat cancer. Stay healthy, stay happy!

(The article is reviewed by Dr. Swati Mishra, Medical Editor)

Recommended Reads:

Tips To Help YOU Quit Smoking!!

Head And Neck Cancer: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment


1. Bobdey S, Jain A, Balasubramanium G. Epidemiological review of laryngeal cancer: An Indian perspective. Indian J Med Paediatr Oncol. 2015 Jul-Sep;36(3):154-60.

2. Smoking and Cancer – Tips for former Smokers [Internet]. Tips From Former Smokers. 2018 [cited 6 August 2018].

3. Laryngeal Cancer – National Library of Medicine – PubMed Health [Internet]. PubMed Health. 2018 [cited 15 October 2018].

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