The most common symptom of laryngeal cancer is a hoarse voice without another cause, such as a cold or the flu. Other symptoms include a persistent sore throat, painful swallowing, and trouble swallowing.

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Laryngeal cancer is fairly rare, and most people who develop it are individuals assigned male at birth who smoke and drink moderately to heavily.

Many of the potential symptoms of laryngeal cancer are more likely to result from something else. However, it’s a good idea to contact your doctor if your symptoms persist for more than a few weeks.

Laryngeal cancer that has spread to other organs might cause additional symptoms, like unintentional weight loss or shortness of breath.

In this article, we examine the most common symptoms of laryngeal cancer.

Learn more about laryngeal cancer.

A hoarse voice that occurs for more than 3 weeks is the primary symptom of laryngeal cancer. It develops when a tumor causes problems with the movement of your vocal cords.

In a 2019 study from the United Kingdom, hoarseness was present in 52% of 806 people with diagnosed laryngeal cancer. People who visited their doctor with hoarseness had laryngeal cancer in 2.7% of cases. More than 3% of people who visited their doctor with hoarseness and other symptoms had laryngeal cancer.

In another study, this time from Romania, hoarseness with or without trouble breathing was present in more than 93% of people with locally advanced laryngeal cancer. Locally advanced means the cancer had spread to nearby tissues.

For cancers limited to the larynx, your voice may improve after treatment with radiation therapy or surgical removal of the tumor. However, your voice may be permanently hoarse if part of your vocal cords needs to be removed.

In a 2022 study, researchers found that undergoing voice rehabilitation following radiation therapy helped improve voice quality.

Painful swallowing is the most common early symptom of cancers that develop in the upper part of the larynx. You may develop pain, especially when swallowing food, due to the pressure of the food against a tumor that may irritate nearby nerves.

Painful swallowing or difficulty swallowing is often a symptom of advanced cancer.

Your pain may improve once a doctor surgically removes the cancer or treats it with radiation therapy. Radiation therapy can cause some side effects, including a persistent feeling of a lump in your throat and difficulty swallowing. Symptoms are usually worse 10–14 days after treatment.

In the same 2019 study from the United Kingdom, researchers found that people visiting their doctor with hoarseness alongside other symptoms were at the highest risk of having laryngeal cancer.

A sore throat with hoarseness was the combination of symptoms most often associated with laryngeal cancer. People who had a sore throat had a higher than 5% likelihood of having laryngeal cancer when other symptoms — such as trouble swallowing, trouble breathing, or ear pain — were also present.

If the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, you may be able to feel swollen lymph nodes around the front of your neck.

If your doctor finds evidence that your cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, you may need to have them surgically removed. Surgery to remove lymph nodes is called a lymphadenectomy.

In the Romanian study, 5.9% of people had trouble breathing without hoarseness. Trouble breathing can result from the tumor obstructing your airways or as a complication of radiation therapy to treat the cancer.

Other potential symptoms of laryngeal cancer include:

Laryngeal cancer can also spread to distant organs. The most common organ it spreads to is your lungs. Spread to your lungs can cause symptoms such as:

When to talk with a doctor

The American Cancer Society recommends contacting your healthcare professional if you have voice changes that don’t improve within 2 weeks.

Contact your doctor or another healthcare professional if you develop other concerning symptoms, such as:

  • throat pain
  • trouble breathing
  • trouble swallowing
  • an unexplained lump in your throat
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What are the stages of laryngeal cancer?

Doctors often use the American Joint Committee on Cancer’s TNM system to stage laryngeal cancer from stages 0 to 4. Stage 0 cancer is considered precancerous. Stage 4 cancer may have spread to distant body parts.

What are the biggest signs of laryngeal cancer?

A hoarse voice that persists for at least 3 weeks is the most common initial symptom of laryngeal cancer.

When do most people develop laryngeal cancer?

Most people with diagnosed laryngeal cancer are over the age of 55 years. The average age of diagnosis is about 66 years old.

How long can you live with untreated laryngeal cancer?

Surviving head and neck cancers without treatment is rare. In a 2021 study, researchers found that half of people in a group of 6,477 individuals with head or neck cancer died within 12 months without treatment.

The most common symptom of laryngeal cancer is a persistent hoarse voice without another cause, like a cold, the flu, or overuse of your voice. Other potential symptoms include trouble swallowing or a persistent sore throat.

Doctors can often treat laryngeal cancer with surgery and radiation therapy. You may have permanent changes to your voice if you need to have part of your vocal cords removed. Voice rehabilitation may help improve the quality of your voice after treatment.