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Read about the symptoms of laryngeal cancer, and when you should see your doctor.

The earlier a cancer is picked up, the easier it is to treat it and the more likely the treatment is to be successful. So it is important that you go to your GP as soon as possible if you notice worrying symptoms.

Hoarseness or a change in your voice

If you have a hoarseness for more than 3 weeks, it could be a sign of laryngeal cancer.

This is one of the most common symptoms. But many other things can cause a hoarse voice. One of the most common causes is acute laryngitis (inflammation of the larynx). This usually happens due to a cold, a chest infection or over use of the voice, such as shouting or screaming.

Smoking can also cause hoarseness because it irritates the throat lining (mucous membranes). Other causes of hoarseness include:

  • acid reflux
  • post nasal drip
  • allergies
  • thyroid problems
  • injury

Many people develop hoarseness as they get older.

Acid reflux is acid leaking from your stomach up into your oesophagus (food pipe). It can cause hoarseness, as stomach acid comes back up the oesophagus and irritates the larynx.

Post nasal drip means mucus dripping from the back of your nose down into your throat. This can happen if you have a cold, an allergy or because you smoke. It makes you cough and can give you a hoarse voice.

You should see your doctor if you have a hoarse voice for more than 3 weeks. Remember that it’s more likely to be due to a cough or irritation than cancer.

Difficulty in swallowing

This can vary from a feeling that there is a crumb stuck in your throat to being completely unable to swallow food. You may have some pain or a burning sensation when swallowing food. Or you may feel that your food is sticking.

A harmless narrowing of the oesophagus (called a stricture) can cause difficulty in swallowing. But it may be because a tumour or swelling is causing a blockage. Either way, you need to see your doctor and get some tests.

Weight loss

Weight loss is a common symptom of many cancers, including laryngeal cancer. It usually happens with more advanced laryngeal cancer and is very unlikely to be the only symptom.

It may happen because you’re eating less due to pain or difficulty in swallowing.

You should see your doctor if you have lost 4 to 5 kg (10lbs) or more in a short time and you are not dieting.

Cough and shortness of breath

Some people find that they’re short of breath or have a cough that doesn't go away. Their breathing may become noisy (stridor).

Other symptoms

Other symptoms include:

  • a feeling that there’s a lump in your throat
  • bad smelling breath (halitosis)
  • an ear ache that doesn’t go away (this is rare)
When to see your doctor

You should see your doctor if you:

  • have a hoarse voice for more than 3 weeks
  • have lost 4 to 5 kg (10lbs) or more in a short time and you are not dieting
  • are short of breath or have a cough that doesn't go away, or your breathing becomes noisy (stridor)
  • have difficulty swallowing
  • have any other symptoms that are unusual for you or that don't go away

Your symptoms are unlikely to be cancer but it's important to get them checked by a doctor.

Last reviewed: 
26 May 2015
  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (10th edition)
    VT De Vita, TS Lawrence and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015

  • Treatment of cancer (6th edition)
    K Sikora and P. Price (editors)
    CRC Press, 2015

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