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Throat cancer does not refer to a single type of cancer. Instead, it describes an agglomeration of various kinds of cancer that affect the throat and adjacent areas. These diseases can impact the base of the tongue all the way to the tonsils and surrounding tissues. Cancer of the larynx may also be classified as throat cancer. In many cases, symptoms appear during more advanced stages, making it crucial for at-risk individuals to receive periodic examinations to rule out possible tumors. Smoking and unhealthy diets can contribute to a higher risk of developing throat cancer.

Cough

One of the first symptoms that affects individuals with throat cancer is a cough. In addition to throat cancer, persistent coughing can be a sign of lung, larynx, or thyroid cancer. The duration of a cough can help determine its severity. Coughing that goes away within a few weeks is more likely due to the common cold or flu. However, if the symptom does not improve over time, and especially if there is blood in the mucus when coughing, one should consult a physician.

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Sore throat and difficulty swallowing

Many people with throat cancer experience pharyngitis, more commonly known as a sore throat, and the sensation of something stuck in the throat. One may also have difficulty swallowing, and it may be painful to eat or drink. The pain is due to a tumor in the throat or surrounding area. When throat pain — which can also be caused by an infection or other short-term illness — does not ease after a few days, individuals should seek the advice of a doctor.

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Vocal changes

Any changes in the voice or increased hoarseness can be symptomatic of throat cancer. This vocal change is even more true for diseases affecting the larynx, which is in large part responsible for vocalization. Other conditions, such as laryngitis, also cause voice changes. The main difference is that these conditions often resolve on their own after a short period. If cancer is the culprit, the change usually increases in severity over time. Tumors may affect pitch, depth, and pronunciation.

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Breathing difficulty

Amongst the most frequent symptoms of throat cancer is a cough accompanied by difficulty breathing. A tumor in the throat can stimulate the cough reflex, causing persistent coughing and sometimes a feeling that something is stuck in the throat. Advanced tumors may obstruct the air passages, which can lead to difficulty breathing and wheezing or noisy breathing. Any changes in breathing pattern should be investigated by a doctor.

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Neck lump

A lump in the neck may develop as a result of cancer in the throat, though not all cases will present with this sign. Often, inflamed lymph nodes, rather than tumors, cause lumps in the neck. Lymph nodes are bean-shaped glands that filter impurities out of the body. When cancer cells develop, the lymph nodes work overtime and become inflamed. If inflamed lymph nodes are caused by a basic infection, they will return to normal size once the infection is eradicated. If inflammation does not ease, another issue could be the cause of the symptom.

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Unexplained pain

Pain is the body's way of warning that something is wrong. When one is injured, the brain receives pain signals from the body, and as a result, we feel pain. Unfortunately for those affected and for diagnostics, throat cancer can cause unexplained pain in different parts of the body. Throat cancer may cause pain at the site of the tumor and other areas, as the tumor grows larger and presses on nerves, soft tissues, or bones.

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Unexplained weight loss

Weight loss is often associated with cancer and is one of the easiest signs to spot. Often, when cancer develops, the individual's appetite wanes. This symptom can be a result of hormonal changes or the presence of a tumor anywhere in the body. As a result, the person begins to lose weight. According to the American Cancer Society, a loss of more than ten pounds over a matter of weeks is a reason to worry.

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Bleeding

Coughing up blood is a possible symptom of throat cancer, though many conditions can cause it. When blood accompanies mucus during a coughing fit, an individual should seek immediate medical attention. When caused by throat cancer, this symptom is due to a tumor in the throat. Unusual bleeding can occur during any phase of cancer, but it is more likely to appear in the later stages.

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Ear pain

The pain from throat cancer can be felt beyond the immediate region, including into the ears. Ear pain is a result of referred pain that begins in the area of the tumor but is felt in another location altogether. Nerves connecting various parts of the head means pain can be carried from the throat or mouth into the ears.

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Other signs and symptoms

Because throat cancer can develop in different areas of the throat, the resulting symptoms also vary, as does their severity. In some cases, individuals experience pain in the chest. This pain is known as radiating pain, which originates at the tumor and travels along the path of a nerve to another area. Some people report blood in their saliva, and experience pain while eating acidic foods such as lemons or tomato sauce. It is essential to report any unusual symptoms to a physician.

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Persistent bad breath

Foul-smelling breath, also known as halitosis, sometimes serves as an early sign of throat cancer. The sources of bad breath include poor oral hygiene, smoking, certain foods and underlying health issues. A lump in the throat and ear pain in addition to bad breath may indicate a cancerous throat tumor. If bad breath persists despite maintaining good oral hygiene practices, it's essential to consult a healthcare professional for a thorough examination.

A woman pinching her nose due to bad breath in a man.

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Swollen or numb tongue

Throat cancer can manifest in unexpected ways, including tongue-related symptoms. Some individuals experience tongue swelling or numbness with tongue or throat cancer because cancer cells impact nearby tissues and nerves. These symptoms can be alarming, and it's crucial not to ignore them. A qualified medical practitioner can diagnose the underlying cause and initiate the appropriate treatment.

swollen enlarged white tongue with wavy ripple scalloped edges (medical name is macroglossia) and lie bumps

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Changes in taste

Throat cancer, along with other types of cancer, can alter a person's sense of taste. The disease itself or medications taken to treat it may leave behind a metallic or bitter taste, even when they eat their favorite foods. These changes may affect your appetite and overall well-being. If your favorite foods no longer taste the same, consult a healthcare provider for a comprehensive evaluation.

Senior woman holding plate of bad spoiled or expired food in her hand,rotten food,emitting a fetid smell or strong-smelling food,disgusted old elderly cover nose with her finger,diet,nutrition concept

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Difficulty opening the mouth

Some individuals with throat cancer have difficulty opening their mouths fully. This limitation can be due to pain, stiffness, or the presence of a tumor affecting the jaw or surrounding tissues. These issues can interfere with daily activities such as eating, speaking, or oral hygiene. If you have a hard time opening your mouth seek medical attention to identify the underlying cause immediately.

a young man in a gray t-shirt standing on a white background squeezing his neck with his hand open mouth.

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Fatigue and weakness

Fatigue and weakness can be common symptoms associated with various medical conditions, including throat cancer. When cancer cells multiply and disrupt the body's normal functions, it can lead to feelings of extreme tiredness and weakness. For some, this fatigue is often unrelieved by rest and may persist over time. For others, lack of sleep, anemia and other side affects of cancer treatment can lead to fatigue. If you experience unexplained, persistent fatigue, talk to a healthcare professional immediately.

Bored businesswoman yawning at workplace feeling no motivation or lack of sleep tired of boring office routine, exhausted restless employee gaping suffering from chronic fatigue or overwork concept

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.