Throat cancer refers to cancerous tumors that develop in your throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx) or tonsils.
Your throat is a muscular tube that begins behind your nose and ends in your neck. Throat cancer most often begins in the flat cells that line the inside of your throat.
Your voice box sits just below your throat and also is susceptible to throat cancer. The voice box is made of cartilage and contains the vocal cords that vibrate to make sound when you talk.
Throat cancer can also affect the piece of cartilage (epiglottis) that acts as a lid for your windpipe. Tonsil cancer, another form of throat cancer, affects the tonsils, which are located on the back of the throat.
Throat cancer care at Mayo Clinic
Signs and symptoms of throat cancer may include:
- A cough
- Changes in your voice, such as hoarseness or not speaking clearly
- Difficulty swallowing
- Ear pain
- A lump or sore that doesn't heal
- A sore throat
- Weight loss
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you notice any new signs and symptoms that are persistent. Most throat cancer symptoms aren't specific to cancer, so your doctor will likely investigate other more common causes first.
Throat cancer occurs when cells in your throat develop genetic mutations. These mutations cause cells to grow uncontrollably and continue living after healthy cells would normally die. The accumulating cells can form a tumor in your throat.
It's not clear what causes the mutation that causes throat cancer. But doctors have identified factors that may increase your risk.
Types of throat cancer
Throat cancer is a general term that applies to cancer that develops in the throat (pharyngeal cancer) or in the voice box (laryngeal cancer). The throat and the voice box are closely connected, with the voice box located just below the throat.
Though most throat cancers involve the same types of cells, specific terms are used to differentiate the part of the throat where cancer originated.
- Nasopharyngeal cancer begins in the nasopharynx — the part of your throat just behind your nose.
- Oropharyngeal cancer begins in the oropharynx — the part of your throat right behind your mouth that includes your tonsils.
- Hypopharyngeal cancer (laryngopharyngeal cancer) begins in the hypopharynx (laryngopharynx) — the lower part of your throat, just above your esophagus and windpipe.
- Glottic cancer begins in the vocal cords.
- Supraglottic cancer begins in the upper portion of the larynx and includes cancer that affects the epiglottis, which is a piece of cartilage that blocks food from going into your windpipe.
- Subglottic cancer begins in the lower portion of your voice box, below your vocal cords.
Factors that can increase your risk of throat cancer include:
- Tobacco use, including smoking and chewing tobacco
- Excessive alcohol use
- A sexually transmitted virus called human papillomavirus (HPV)
- A diet lacking in fruits and vegetables
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
There's no proven way to prevent throat cancer from occurring. But in order to reduce your risk of throat cancer, you can:
- Stop smoking or don't start smoking. If you smoke, quit. If you don't smoke, don't start. Stopping smoking can be very difficult, so get some help. Your doctor can discuss the benefits and risks of the many stop-smoking strategies, such as medications, nicotine replacement products and counseling.
- Drink alcohol only in moderation, if at all. If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger.
- Choose a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables. The vitamins and antioxidants in fruits and vegetables may reduce your risk of throat cancer. Eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.
- Protect yourself from HPV. Some throat cancers are thought to be caused by the sexually transmitted infection human papillomavirus (HPV). You can reduce your risk of HPV by limiting your number of sexual partners and using a condom every time you have sex. Also consider the HPV vaccine, which is available to boys, girls, and young women and men.