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Male patient with throat cancer symptoms

A type of head and neck cancer, throat cancer can develop in the throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), vocal cords or tonsils. Most throat tumors are detected in the middle section of the throat (oropharynx). Located behind the mouth, the oropharynx includes the base of the tongue, soft palate and tonsils.

Throat cancer is approximately five times more common in men than women, and most cases are diagnosed after age 65.

What causes throat cancer?

Like all types of cancer, throat cancer occurs when healthy cells undergo abnormal DNA changes that cause them to grow uncontrollably. The excess cells then build up, bind together and form tumors. Most throat tumors originate in the thin, flat cells (squamous cells) in the mucous membranes that line the pharynx and larynx.

Through ongoing studies, scientists are working to gain a better understanding of what triggers the cellular DNA mutations that lead to cancer. Regarding throat cancer specifically, researchers have confirmed that certain lifestyle choices, environmental exposures and medical conditions strongly contribute to its development.

Throat cancer risk factors

Tobacco use and alcohol consumption are known to be major risk factors for throat cancer. This includes all smoked and smokeless tobacco products, such as cigars, pipes, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, snuff and betel quid, and all types of alcoholic beverages, such as liquor, beer and wine.

With that said, throat cancer can and does affect people who do not use tobacco products or drink alcoholic beverages. Approximately 70% of throat cancers that develop in the tonsils, soft palate or base of the tongue are linked to human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection (STI). For many years, HPV has been known to be associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer in women. More recently, certain HPV strains, including HPV16 and HPV18, were linked to throat cancer. HPV-related throat cancer may not develop until several years after the initial viral exposure.

Overall, the number of new cases of tobacco-related throat cancers is falling, while the number of new cases of HPV-related throat cancers is rising.

Other risk factors for throat cancer include:

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)
  • Poor nutrition, particularly a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables
  • Plummer-Vinson syndrome
  • Exposure to asbestos, wood dust, paint fumes and certain chemicals used in the petroleum, construction, metalworking and textile industries
  • Excess body weight and obesity

Throat cancer prevention

While throat cancer cannot be completely prevented, the likelihood of its development can be reduced with the avoidance of risk factors, such as tobacco use and alcohol consumption.

Other preventive steps include:

  • Getting an HPV vaccine
  • Wearing a protective face mask whenever there is a possibility of exposure to harmful fumes, particles or other carcinogens
  • Consuming a nutritious diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables and limits salty and preserved foods
  • Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight

It is also important to promptly discuss any unusual symptoms, such as vocal changes or a persistent sore throat, with a physician.

Benefit from world-class care at Moffitt Cancer Center

Moffitt is a high-volume cancer center, and our Head and Neck Cancer Program is one of the most active of its kind in the United States. As a result, we are able to offer a robust portfolio of clinical trials for various types and stages of throat cancer. Our highly specialized physicians focus their knowledge and skills solely on helping cancer patients, and we have the most up-to-date information and cutting-edge technology for diagnosing and treating throat cancer.

Additionally, because throat cancer and its treatment can potentially affect a patient’s ability to speak, hear and breathe, as well as their appearance, we ensure that every patient has access to full rehabilitation support, including speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy and reconstructive surgery.

If you would like to learn more about throat cancer causes and risk factors, turn to the world-renowned experts in Moffitt’s Head and Neck Cancer Program. To request an appointment, call 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online. We do not require referrals.