Risk Factors and Symptoms of Pharyngeal Cancer

Risk Factors

  • Alcohol and tobacco use represent  75% of the risk factors, especially of cancers of the oral cavity, oropharynx (part of the throat at the back of the mouth), hypopharynx (lower part of the throat at the back of the mouth), and larynx or voice box. People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk of developing these cancers than people who use either tobacco or alcohol alone.
  • Infection with cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus (HPV), especially HPV type 16, particularly affects the tonsils or the base of the tongue. The incidence of oropharyngeal cancers caused by HPV infection is increasing, although the incidence of these cancers related to other causes is falling. (National Cancer Institute)
  • Radiation exposure for non-cancerous reasons is a risk factor for salivary gland cancers.
  • Occupational exposure to wood dust, asbestos and synthetic fabrics has been associated with cancers of the larynx and nasopharyngeal (part of the nose at the back of the throat) region. Industrial exposure to wood or nickel dust or formaldehyde is also a risk factor for cancers of the paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity.
  • Epstein-Barr virus is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer and cancer of the salivary glands.
  • Asian ancestry, particularly Chinese ancestry, is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer.

(National Cancer Institute)



Symptoms of pharyngeal or throat cancer involve the nasopharynx (the section of the throat at the back of the nose), oropharynx (the section of the throat at the back of the mouth) and the hypopharynx (lower throat). They include:

  • nose bleeds or bloody discharge from the nose
  • stuffiness or blockage in the nose
  • pain or blockage in one ear
  • persistent infections in one ear
  • ringing in the ear, or tinnitus
  • hearing difficulties or hearing loss
  • sore throat

And in the most advanced stages of the disease these include:

  • facial pain
  • headache (often over an eye or in a temple)
  • bulging eye (if the tumour presses on the eye socket)
  • being unable to open your mouth or move your jaw, which is called trismus
  • double vision
  • sore throat, usually on one side
  • difficulty swallowing
  • painful swallowing
  • feeling that something is stuck in the throat
  • referred otalgia, which is pain in the ear caused by a problem in the mouth or throat
  • coughing up bloody mucus
  • hoarseness
  • weight loss
  • drooling or blood-stained saliva
  • bad breath, or halitosis

(Canadian Cancer Society)