Overview

Tonsil cancer is an abnormal growth of cells that forms in a tonsil. Your tonsils are two oval-shaped pads in the back of your mouth that are part of your body's germ-fighting immune system.

Tonsil cancer can cause difficulty swallowing and a sensation that something is caught in your throat. Tonsil cancer is often diagnosed late in the disease, when cancer has spread to nearby areas, such as the lymph nodes in the neck.

Treatments for tonsil cancer include surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of tonsil cancer include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • A sensation that something is caught in the back of your throat
  • Swelling and pain in the neck
  • Earache
  • Jaw stiffness

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor or dentist if you experience any persistent signs and symptoms that worry you.

Causes

Tonsil cancer forms when healthy cells in the tonsils develop changes in their DNA. A cell's DNA contains the instructions that tell a cell what to do. The changes tell the cells to grow out of control and to continue living when healthy cells would normally die. The accumulating cells form a tumor that can grow beyond the tonsils and spread to other areas of the body.

It's not clear what causes tonsil cancer, but doctors are finding that human papillomavirus (HPV) is increasingly playing a role. This common sexually transmitted infection is detected in most tonsil cancers in the United States. Tonsil cancer caused by HPV tends to occur at a younger age and is more likely to respond well to available treatments.

Risk factors

Factors that may increase the risk of tonsil cancer include:

  • Using tobacco
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Being infected with human papillomavirus (HPV)

Prevention

To reduce your risk of tonsil cancer:

  • Don't use tobacco. If you don't use tobacco, don't start. If you currently use tobacco of any kind, talk with your doctor about strategies to help you quit.
  • Limit alcohol if you choose to drink. If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men.
  • Get regular dental care. During your appointment, your dentist will check your mouth for signs of cancer and precancerous changes.
  • Consider the HPV vaccine. Receiving a vaccination to prevent HPV infection may reduce your risk of HPV-related cancers, such as tonsil cancer. Ask your doctor whether an HPV vaccine is appropriate for you.

Tonsil cancer care at Mayo Clinic

Jan. 29, 2021
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