Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School


What Is It?

Throat cancer occurs when cells in the organs used for breathing, speaking, and swallowing begin to divide rapidly and abnormally. Most throat cancer begins on the vocal cords. Later, it spreads to the voice box (larynx); to the back of the throat, including part of the tongue and the tonsils (this whole area is called the pharynx); or below the voice box to the subglottis and trachea (windpipe). An early symptom of throat cancer is unexplained hoarseness or a raspy voice.

Smokers are at high risk of throat cancer. Other people at high risk include those who drink a lot of alcohol, especially if they also smoke. People with a vitamin A deficiency and certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection also may be more likely to develop throat cancer.

Throat cancer is associated with other cancers. Some throat cancer patients are diagnosed with cancer of the mouth, esophagus, or lung at the same time. Some people with throat cancer develop these cancers later on. Bladder cancer can occur in patients with throat cancer, because smoking increases the risk of this type of cancer, too.

Throat cancer is more common among men than women, probably because more men smoke. This cancer is less common among people younger than 55. Many throat cancers can be treated successfully. However, treatment may affect the person's ability to speak.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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