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Head and Neck CancersThroat CancerThroat Cancer Signs and Symptoms

Let's Talk About Throat Cancer Symptoms

Throat cancer can mimic lots of other everyday ailments, so don't get fooled. We've got the doctor-approved scoop on the red flags that signal real trouble.

    Our Pro PanelThroat Cancer Symptoms

    We went to some of the nation's top experts on head and neck cancers to bring you the most up-to-date information possible.

    Salvatore M. Caruana, M.D.

    Salvatore M. Caruana, M.D.Director of the Division of Head and Neck Surgery

    New York-Presbyterian Hospital Columbia University Medical Center
    New York, NY
    Nadia Mohyuddin, M.D.

    Nadia Mohyuddin, M.D.Head and Neck Surgical Oncologist, Associate Professor of Clinical Otolaryngology

    Houston Methodist Hospital
    Houston, TX
    J. Kenneth Byrd, M.D.

    J. Kenneth Byrd, M.D.Chief of Head and Neck Surgery, Medical Director and Research Director

    Georgia Cancer Center at Augusta University
    Augusta, GA

    Frequently Asked QuestionsThroat Cancer Signs and Symptoms

    Why are men at higher risk?

    From what we can tell, it all comes down to lifestyle. Two of the main risk factors—smoking and alcohol overuse—are more common in men. Historically, men have also been more likely to work in professions with occupational exposure risks like wood dust, paint fumes, and asbestos. When it comes to HPV-caused throat cancer, research suggests that women develop protective antibodies to HPV after only a few sexual partners, but for men it can take 10 or more partners.

    What does ear pain have to do with throat cancer?

    The ear, nose, and throat are intricately connected and love to share, which is why so many upper respiratory ailments involve symptoms in all three areas. This connection includes several sensory nerves in the ear that also run through the head, neck, and chest. For people with throat malignancies, the pain actually occurs at the site of the cancer but the sensation travels through the nerves to the ear—this is what doctors call “referred” pain.

    How do I know it’s not just heartburn or acid reflux?

    A burning sensation in your chest, difficulty swallowing, feeling like there’s a lump in your throat: The symptoms of heartburn and cancers of the throat are similar to be sure, but don’t just pop an antacid and forget about it. Research shows that people who experience heavy heartburn are at a 78% increased risk of cancers of the pharynx and larynx, regardless of whether they smoke, drink, or have HPV.

    Can cobblestone throat turn into cancer?

    It’s unlikely. While visible lumps and bumps, described as “cobblestone throat,” can look scary, they are caused by inflamed and enlarged tissue, not cancer. Most likely, they are due to post-nasal drip that can occur with seasonal allergies, upper respiratory infections, cold dry air, and some meds, including birth control pills. Cobblestone throat is usually harmless and easy to treat with decongestants or antihistamines.

    Stephanie Wood

    Stephanie Wood

    Stephanie Wood is a award-winning freelance writer and former magazine editor specializing in health, nutrition, wellness, and parenting.