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Could a Frequently Sore Throat Be A Sign of Cancer?

Medically reviewed by Jobelle Ann Dela Cruz Bigalbal, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Alyssa Mae Singson · Updated Sep 21, 2020

Could a Frequently Sore Throat Be A Sign of Cancer?

At some point in your life, you have probably nursed a sore throat with some lozenges. Sore throats are common health problems and can happen to anyone, regardless of age. But is a frequently sore throat a sign of cancer?

A sore throat could be caused by infections from viruses and bacteria, irritants and allergens such as pollen, mold, dust, dry heat, car exhaust, refluxes, and tumors.

When you have a sore throat, you sometimes experience difficulty breathing, swallowing, and even speaking. But rarely do we think it to be anything that is serious. Sore throats can be caused by many things, but is a frequently sore throat a sign of cancer? Though it might seem scary thinking of cancer, it’s best to protect your health and learn about all the risks involved. 

Is a Frequently Sore Throat a Sign of Cancer?

Mild sore throats are often treated with home remedies like drinking warm tea, gargling water with salt, and over the counter medicines like ibuprofen. More often than not, your sore throat will go away after a few days. However, if it lasts for more than a few days, and if it comes with a fever, consulting a doctor might be the best recourse. 

A throat culture might be needed for severe sore throats, to see the kind of bacteria and to know what kind of antibiotic to take.

If you experience chronic sore throats, there might be an underlying serious condition that causes it to recur. Here are a few reasons for chronic sore throats:

Viral and Bacterial Infections

Probably the most common cause of sore throats, viral and bacterial infections can cause acute and chronic pharyngitis. Acute sore throats usually last only a few days and will go away on their own. Treatment for acute sore throats usually involve only comfort medicines. Other home remedies to help soothe your throat include gargling with a mouthwash, an antiseptic, or water mixed with salt. 

Chronic sore throats, conversely, last more than a few weeks and are harder to treat. According to the Advanced Ear Nose and Throat Associates from Atlanta, Georgia, the most common cause of chronic pharyngitis is a persistent infection of the tonsils.

A swab test or a blood test may be needed to identify the infection. Generally, any infection can be treated through antibiotics. But if the infection is recurrent, that is you get a sore throat about twice or thrice a year, best consult with an ENT doctor as a tonsillectomy (removal of the tonsils) might be needed.

sore throat a sign of cancer

Smoking Risks

Cigarettes, which contain many toxic chemicals, can cause irritation in the tissues lining the throat. Regular and heavy smokers thus experience frequent sore throats. And because smoking can cause a weaker immune system, smokers are more vulnerable to various health conditions.

A lasting sore throat can be a manifestation of lung or throat cancer. Smoking, according to the American Lung Association, causes about 90% of lung cancer cases. What’s more, smoking, according to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, when combined with heavy alcohol intake, can increase the risk for throat cancer even more.

Former smokers who’ve kicked the habit are at lower risk of cancer. The risks of chronic sore throats and eventually cancer are greatly reduced by quitting smoking.

Nonsmokers may still be affected through second-hand smoke. Fortunately, you can reduce your risk by simply avoiding second-hand smoke.

Air Pollution

Air in large cities like Manila can be the cause of a recurring sore throat. This is because of the many particulates found in city air from vehicles, construction sites, and factories. This can cause irritation not only in the throat, but also in the lungs and in the eyes.

Ground level ozone is more harmful than atmospheric ozone especially when there is heavy traffic, the air is still, and the sun is high. Studies found that prolonged exposure to extremely polluted air can have the same effect on the lungs as smoking.

Acid Reflux

Also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD, acid reflux is when the contents of one’s stomach rises to the esophagus. The acidic gastric juice rises to the esophagus and irritates it, but sometimes, refluxes can also be gaseous.

Along with the acidic juices or gases that rise to the esophagus, an enzyme called pepsin.. Pepsin is found in the stomach and is responsible for breaking down proteins. It is active in a low PH or an acidic environment like the stomach, and inactive in the throat and airways.  

Acidic food and drinks such as citrus fruits and juices and acid reflux can trigger the lowering of pH in the throat and airways, causing pepsin to activate. And because the cells of the mucous membranes are mainly composed of protein, the activated pepsin will break down the proteins, causing irritation and eventually a sore throat, a cough, hoarseness, and difficulty in swallowing. Other symptoms of acid reflux include heartburn.

With recurrent acid refluxes, esophageal cells can change and can lead to a precancerous stage known as Barett’s Esophagus, which can eventually lead to esophageal cancer

A Weak Immune System

The immune system is the body’s first line of defense, responsible for fighting off infection.

According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, there are a few reasons your immune system might be compromised.

  • You were born with a weak immune system.
  • Acquiring a disease that weakens your immune system, such as HIV.
  • You have an immune system that is too active, causing allergic reactions or asthma.
  • Your immune system reacts abnormally and attacks your own body. This occurs in diseases, like lupus and type 1 diabetes.

People who are immunocompromised are more likely to get chronic sore throats and many other diseases because their bodies are unable to fight off infections and viruses that enter the body. 

Throat Cancer

Throat cancer is an umbrella term for different types of cancers in the pharynx, the tube through which we swallow, and the larynx, or the voice box.

According to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the number of smoking-related throat cancers have declined, but the number of new cases of HPV-related throat cancers have dramatically increased.

All About Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

Today, the HPV is the most common risk factor for throat cancer. HPV or the human papillomavirus is sexually transmitted, including transmission through oral sex. HPV encompasses more than 150 viruses, and HPV 16 is the type that is associated with throat cancer. However, throat cancer may develop even years after exposure to the virus. Exposure to toxic chemicals such as nickel, asbestos, and sulfuric acid fumes can also trigger the development of throat cancer.

So is a persistently recurring sore throat a sign of cancer? Yes, but not all the time.

A common warning sign of throat cancer is a persistent sore throat

One of the most common warning signs of throat cancer is a persistent sore throat. Other symptoms of throat cancer include:

  • a persistent cough
  • difficulty swallowing
  • hoarseness and other voice changes
  • a lump in the mouth, throat, or neck
  • Ear and jaw pain
  • difficulty breathing
  • unexplained weight loss
  • headaches 

A doctor can diagnose throat cancer through a series of tests like imaging tests, scoping procedures, and biopsies, just like any other type of cancer. They may treat throat cancer through surgery, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, or chemotherapy.

Key Takeaways

Although genetic factors may dictate whether or not you develop cancer, you can always lessen your risk of getting throat cancer through cautious, well-thought out lifestyle changes. 

One way is to quit smoking. Making changes to your diet and avoiding food that can trigger acid reflux can also help in avoiding severe medical conditions.

Also, remember to wash your hands with soap as often as you can and refrain from touching your eyes, nose, and mouth to avoid infection.         

Keep in mind that just because you have a sore throat, it does not automatically mean you have cancer. Treat your throat with care, and when a sore throat persists, always remember that consulting your doctor is the best option, since it can signal other health problems. 

Learn more about cancer, here.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Jobelle Ann Dela Cruz Bigalbal, MD

General Practitioner

Written by Alyssa Mae Singson · Updated Sep 21, 2020

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