If people are concerned about throat cancer, it is important to speak to healthcare professionals. Seeing a doctor can help discover what is causing any symptoms, and a mental health professional can help support people with health anxiety.

Throat cancer can cause symptoms such as a hoarse voice, lump in the throat, or difficulty swallowing.

However, these symptoms can also occur for many other reasons.

This article looks at the signs and symptoms of throat cancer, other conditions they may indicate, and when to contact a doctor.

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The following symptoms can be a sign of throat cancer — although they may also occur for other reasons.

Many of the symptoms listed below are more likely to be due to other health conditions, and having these symptoms does not mean a person definitely has throat cancer.

Early symptoms

Voice changes or hoarseness can be an early sign of throat cancers that develop on the vocal cords. Voice changes tend to happen in the later stages of throat cancers that do not first develop on the vocal cords.

The American Cancer Society suggests seeing a doctor right away if a person experiences voice changes that do not improve within 2 weeks.

Later symptoms

Later symptoms of throat cancer may include:

  • pain
  • difficulty breathing
  • difficulty or pain with swallowing
  • a lump in the neck that does not go away
  • coughing up blood

In addition, symptoms of throat cancers that develop above or below the vocal cords may include:

What else might cause these symptoms?

Symptoms of throat cancer can occur for many other benign reasons. For example, swallowing difficulties may occur due to:

  • gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • a side effect of certain medications
  • problems with the teeth

Breathing difficulties can be a sign of anxiety, asthma, or a lack of physical exercise.

Swollen lymph nodes may result in a lump in the throat for various reasons, such as fighting off an infection, and are usually due to a cause other than cancer.

If people have the above symptoms, seeing a doctor for a diagnosis is important to find the underlying cause and get any necessary treatment.

A doctor will ask people about the symptoms they are experiencing and how long these have been going on. A doctor will take a medical history, which may include questions about:

  • any previous or current medical or health issues
  • lifestyle
  • social habits
  • any potential risk factors for throat cancer

A doctor will carry out a physical exam of the head and neck area. This may include looking inside the mouth and throat for abnormalities and signs of swelling in the lymph nodes.

What does it mean if a person is referred to a specialist?

A referral to a specialist does not mean people have throat cancer, and many other conditions could be causing symptoms. A thorough examination can help determine the cause of symptoms and begin treatment if necessary.

A doctor may refer a person to an otolaryngologist for symptoms affecting the head and neck. An otolaryngologist is a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating conditions affecting the ears, nose, and throat.

A specialist is able to carry out a more detailed examination of the head and neck, including looking at the larynx and hypopharynx to look for what may be causing symptoms.

Seeing a specialist allows people to get an accurate diagnosis of any problems affecting the throat.

A person cannot check for throat cancer at home. This is because the symptoms can vary and have other potential causes.

However, the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance suggests that people can use their fingers to feel their neck for any lumps and bumps.

A person can do this each month.

Learn more about checking for throat cancer at home.

If people feel they are worrying excessively about their health, it may be a sign of health anxiety.

Health anxiety may lead people to have obsessive thoughts about their health and seek out frequent medical tests and visits to the doctor. People may search for answers online and try to self-diagnose, leading to increased anxiety and uncertainty.

It is important for a person to see a doctor if they think they may have symptoms of throat cancer and not to delay seeking a medical opinion.

If doctors rule out any medical problems with the throat and a person is still worrying about their health, they may find it beneficial to speak with a mental health professional.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is highly effective in treating anxiety disorders, including health anxiety.

Learn more about health anxiety.

If there is a diagnosis of throat cancer

If a person does receive a throat cancer diagnosis, they may experience significant anxiety. The following options may be available to help them:

  • relaxation training
  • talk therapy or counseling
  • social support groups
  • cancer education sessions

These types of therapies can help a person with cancer experience lower levels of anxiety and depression. The National Cancer Institute states that those who experience the most distress also get the most relief from these types of therapies.

Many less serious conditions can cause similar symptoms to throat cancer. If people have any symptoms of throat cancer, they can speak with a doctor to get a diagnosis.

In some cases, a doctor may refer people to a specialist to provide a more accurate diagnosis and find the underlying cause.

If people have persistent concerns or anxiety over their health, it may also help for them to speak with a mental health professional.