When is a persistent sore throat a sign of cancer?

persistent sore throatCC: Sunrise at Unsplash

Recent research from the University of Exeter has highlighted a persistent sore throat as a sign of cancer. Specifically, it’s a symptom of laryngeal cancer.

This information comes after researchers analyzed more than 3,000 case records. Until now, hoarseness was the cardinal symptoms doctors would look for. With news that a persistent sore throat should also ring alarm bells, is it time to worry? And, who should pay close attention to this information?

What is a persistent sore throat?

As the name suggests, a persistent sore throat is a sore throat that won’t go away. In addition to acting as a sign of laryngeal cancer, it can be caused by the following conditions:

  • Allergies
  • Mouth breathing at night
  • Acid reflux
  • Heavy smoking

Unlike a sore throat that accompanies conditions such as tonsillitis, it won’t disappear after one to two weeks.

Other symptoms to watch out for

If you’re worried that your persistent sore throat could mean laryngeal cancer, it’s worth watching out for the following symptoms:

  • Your voice sounds different – it’s hoarser than usual.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • A persistent cough.
  • A noticeable lump in your throat.
  • A persistent earache.

In later stages of the disease, difficulty breathing is present. However, most people receive a diagnosis before this point.

Who needs to pay close attention to this symptom?

Although laryngeal cancer is the commonest form of head and neck cancer, it’s rare in the grand scheme of things. The CDC estimates there are roughly 12,500 cases per year. Men are four times more likely to develop it than women.

Naturally, not everyone with a persistent sore throat needs to worry about the disease. The following risk factors should spark concerns:

  • A history of smoking
  • Exposure to certain chemicals, including asbestos and formaldehyde
  • Low fruit and vegetable intake
  • A history of HPV16

It’s believed that while cases in men are falling, they’re rising in women. This may relate to the rise in people committing smoking, but an increased uptake among women.

Should most people be worried?

Given how rare laryngeal cancer is, most individuals with a persistent sore throat don’t need to worry about that particular cause. It’s especially rare among people aged under 40 and more common when you’re over 60.

However, a persistent sore throat isn’t normal. Even causes such as mouth breathing at night are worthy of your attention. This can suggest having a poor jaw alignment, being overweight, or suffering from sleep apnea. Additionally, if you do have an allergy that’s causing a persistent sore throat, it may affect your quality of life.

So while you don’t always need to worry about this symptom, it’s worth discussing with your doctor. And, if you believe lifestyle habits such as smoking are key contributors, now’s the time to stop.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.