6 Early Throat Cancer Symptoms You Might Ignore

Throat cancer often doesn’t cause symptoms until later stages—yet early detection makes for more effective treatment. If you notice any of the following throat cancer symptoms, or if you have a history of smoking or excessive alcohol use, call your doctor.

mature woman looking in the mirror in bathroom
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Throat cancer symptom: A lump on the neck

If you notice a lump on your neck that you’ve never felt before, it could be a sign of throat cancer. This means that if a tumor is present, it has most likely metastasized from the throat to the neck, says Eric M. Genden, MD, professor and system chair of Otolaryngology at Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. Lumps are most commonly felt right under the jaw, he says, but they can also present elsewhere on the neck. Swollen glands in your neck can have multiple different causes that aren’t cancer. These are other cancer symptoms women ignore and cancer signs men tend to overlook.

woman holding both hands to her throat
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Throat cancer symptom: Changes in your voice

Cancers that form on the vocal cords can often cause hoarseness or a change in the sound and pitch of your voice; luckily, these noticeable changes often lead to an earlier diagnosis and are one of the early throat cancer symptoms, according to the American Cancer Society. If the hoarseness doesn’t go away within two weeks, see a doctor. These causes of cancer might surprise you.

man in blue suit holding throat

Throat cancer risk factor: You or your partner have HPV

It’s well known that human papillomavirus (HPV) can increase your risk of developing cervical cancer if you’re a woman, but in the past decade, oral cancers linked to HPV have increased at least fourfold in both men and women, according to The Mount Sinai Hospital. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 70 percent of oropharynx cancers (tumors in the back of the throat) may be caused by HPV. “There has been an explosive epidemic of HPV associated cancers. Men are now getting throat cancer at alarming rates,” says Dr. Genden. Exactly how HPV is linked to oral cancers is still murky, but Dr. Genden says what’s clear is that more and more men are developing HPV infection in their throat, mostly via oral sex; and while there’s not yet a way to test men for the virus, knowing your partner’s HPV status is one way to exercise precaution. HPV-associated throat cancer has the same symptoms as throat cancer linked with smoking, alcohol or anything else: pain while chewing, sores on the neck that don’t heal, difficulty swallowing, or hoarseness. The HPV vaccine can prevent HPV infection and, therefore, any related cancers. Be sure not to fall for these HPV myths that could seriously damage your health.

woman holding throat

Throat cancer symptom: You often feel something’s in your throat

If it always feels like you’ve got something stuck in your throat (this is called “foreign body sensation” in the medical world), it could mean a tumor is blocking part of your throat. “This is a very common presentation. People sense there’s something there but they can’t see it,” says Dr. Genden. Difficulty or painful swallowing can also be one of the early signs of throat cancer. Here are some simple ways you can prevent throat cancer.

woman touching ear ache
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Throat cancer symptom: An earache

A persistent earache may be a symptom of throat cancer, according to the CDC. Ear pain is also one of 13 signs of oral cancer you might ignore.

jars of cotton swabs and tongue depressors
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Throat cancer symptom: A persistent sore throat

If you’re not sick but just can’t seem to kick that scratchy sore throat, it could be one of the early signs of throat cancer. Tumors that form in the area below the vocal cords often cause these throat cancer symptoms, according to the American Cancer Society. Learn how to tell if the soreness is actually one of these symptoms of thyroid cancer.

Medically reviewed by Russell H. Greenfield, MD, on August 22, 2019
Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Alyssa Jung
Alyssa Jung is a writer and editor with extensive experience creating health and wellness content that resonates with readers. She freelanced for local publications in Upstate New York and spent three years as a newspaper reporter before moving to New York City to pursue a career in magazines. She is currently Senior Associate Editor at Prevention magazine and a contributor to Prevention.com. Previously she worked at Reader's Digest as an editor, writer, and health fact checker.