Overview of throat cancer
Throat cancer is a universal term for cancers of the throat. Cancer of the throat is a common type of head and neck cancer that can have a range of symptoms.
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Signs and symptoms of throat cancer depend on the specific area of the cancer, but may include:
- Chronic sore throat or bad breath
- Chronic nasal congestion and stuffiness that may worsen with time
- Difficulty swallowing, or pain with swallowing
- Ear pain
- Hoarseness, difficulty speaking, or changes in the way your voice sounds
- A lump, sore, or mass in the back of the mouth, throat, or neck that doesn’t go away
- Trouble breathing or noisy breathing
- Trouble moving the tongue or opening the mouth fully
- Unintended weight loss
These symptoms can also occur with many other health conditions and are not always a sign of cancer. Whether it is cancer or not, seeking early diagnosis and treatment will often improve the outcome. If you have these symptoms for longer than two weeks, see a doctor immediately.
Tobacco use and smoking is the leading risk factor for most head and neck cancers, including throat cancer. About 85 percent of head and neck cancers result from tobacco use, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and smokeless products.
Smoking more, and for more extended periods, increases your risk. Moderate to excessive alcohol consumption and human papillomavirus (HPV) infection also make you more likely to develop throat cancer.
Throat cancer can be divided into categories based on which part of the throat is affected.
The throat includes two major areas. The first area is the pharynx, which consists of the nasopharynx (behind the nose), the oropharynx (behind the mouth), and the hypopharynx (behind the larynx).
The second area is the larynx (voice box), which is located further down in the neck. Cancers in and around the larynx include glottic cancer, which starts in the glottis (vocal chords), supraglottic cancer (which starts in the epiglottis at the top of your windpipe), and subglottic cancer, which occurs in the lower part of your larynx.
Some of the known risk factors for throat cancer are:
- HPV infection. HPV is a very common sexually transmitted disease. There are multiple strains of HPV, some of which cause genital warts, and some which cause cancers such as cervical cancer and throat cancer.
- Smoking and tobacco use. Smoking any substance can irritate or damage the lining of the throat, increasing the likelihood of cancer.
- Chewing stimulants such as tobacco, betel quid, and gutka. These substances all significantly increase throat cancer risk.
- Excessive alcohol consumption. Alcohol use is linked to a higher risk of throat cancer.
- Diagnosis of GERD or other conditions that cause frequent vomiting or acid reflux.
While the connection has not been extensively studied, some diet and lifestyle factors may also influence throat cancer:
- Drinking yerba mate
- Being overweight
- Eating a diet low in some nutrients found in green leafy vegetables
- Previous history of Epstein-Barr virus
- Asian ancestry
Cancer prevention strategies focus on controlling risk factors. Some ways to reduce your chances of throat cancer include:
- Getting the HPV vaccine, as instructed by your doctor.
- Practicing safe sex or abstinence to reduce your chance of HPV infection.
- Attending regular screenings for HPV and other routine physical checkups, as recommended by your doctor.
- Not smoking, or quitting as soon as possible.
- Avoiding tobacco and other substances known to boost cancer risk.
- Avoiding excess consumption of alcohol.
- Increasing your consumption of fruits and vegetables.
The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.