Does smoking cause throat cancer? | 4 min read

The short answer is “yes, it does,” but it seems there’s a public perception that smoking only affects the lungs and not the upper respiratory tract.

Besides lung cancer, tobacco use also increases the risk for cancers of the mouth, lips, nose and sinuses, larynx (voice box), pharynx (throat), oesophagus (swallowing tube), stomach, pancreas, kidney, bladder, uterus, cervix, colon/rectum, ovary (mucinous), and acute myeloid leukaemia.

Smoking can affect the health of your mouth and throat. As well as the obvious effects such as unsightly stains on your teeth and bad breath, smoking is the major cause of cancers of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, pharynx, larynx (voice box), tongue, lips and salivary glands. The longer you smoke, and the more you smoke, the greater the risk of these cancers. More than 80% of cancers of the mouth, nose and throat occur in people who smoke cigarettes, cigars or pipes.

Throat cancer refers to cancerous tumours that develop in your throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx) or tonsils.

Your throat is a muscular tube that begins behind your nose and ends in your neck. Your voice box sits just below your throat and is also susceptible to throat cancer. The voice box is made of cartilage and contains the vocal cords that vibrate to make a sound when you talk. Throat cancer can also affect the piece of cartilage (epiglottis) that acts as a lid for your windpipe. Tonsil cancer, another form of throat cancer, affects the tonsils, which are located on the back of the throat.

You can reduce your risk of throat cancer by not smoking, not chewing tobacco and limiting alcohol use.

Signs and symptoms of throat cancer may include:
  • A cough
  • Changes in your voice, such as hoarseness
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Ear pain
  • A lump or sore that doesn’t heal
  • A sore throat
  • Weight loss
When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you notice any new signs and symptoms that are persistent. Most throat cancer symptoms aren’t specific to cancer, so your doctor will likely investigate other more common causes first.

Factors that can increase your risk of throat cancer include:

  • Tobacco use, including smoking and chewing tobacco
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • The human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • A diet lacking in fruits and vegetables
 

In order to diagnose throat cancer, your doctor may recommend:

  • Using a scope to get a closer look at your throat. Your doctor may use a special lighted scope (endoscope) to get a close look at your throat during a procedure called endoscopy. A tiny camera at the end of the endoscope transmits images to a video screen that your doctor watches for signs of abnormalities in your throat. Another type of scope (laryngoscope) can be inserted in your voice box. It uses a magnifying lens to help your doctor examine your vocal cords. This procedure is called laryngoscopy.
  • Removing a tissue sample for testing. If abnormalities are found during endoscopy or laryngoscopy, your doctor can pass surgical instruments through the scope to collect a tissue sample (biopsy). The sample is sent to a laboratory for testing.
  • Imaging tests. Imaging tests, including X-ray, computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), may help your doctor determine the extent of your cancer beyond the surface of your throat or voice box.
What can you do?

1. Quit smoking
Throat cancers are closely linked to smoking. Not everyone with throat cancer, smokes. But if you do smoke, now is the time to stop because:

  • Smoking makes treatment less effective
  • Smoking makes it harder for your body to heal after surgery
  • Smoking increases your risk of getting another cancer in the future
  • Stopping smoking can be very difficult. And it’s that much harder when you’re trying to cope with a stressful situation, such as a cancer diagnosis. Your doctor can discuss all of your options, including medications, nicotine replacement products and counselling
 

2. Quit drinking alcohol
Alcohol, particularly when combined with smoking or chewing tobacco, greatly increases the risk of throat cancer. If you drink alcohol, stop now. This may help reduce your risk of a second cancer.

Prognosis

The outlook for laryngeal cancer depends on how far the cancer has spread before it is diagnosed and treated. This is known as the stage of cancer.

Fortunately, most laryngeal cancers are diagnosed at an early stage, which means the outlook is generally better than some other types of cancer.

If you smoke, stopping smoking after being diagnosed with laryngeal cancer may help improve your outlook.

 

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