How to distinguish between throat cancer and other possible causes for a constant sensation that something is stuck in the throat?

Doctor's Answers (2)

Like many other questions in medicine and health, the answer needs to be tailored to the specific circumstances for each patient. There are different subsites in the throat. Therefore the factors for risk assessment and symptoms are different. The ENT evaluation would include transnasal endoscopy and might require imaging (ultrasound, CT or MRI) of the neck.

In general, I would consider the following symptoms suspicious for cancer:

  1. smoking
  2. consistent high alcohol intake
  3. bloodstained sputum
  4. progressive hoarseness
  5. noisy breath sounds from the throat
  6. progressive swallowing difficulty
  7. palpable lump in the neck

However, early tumours may have very few symptoms and will need a thorough evaluation and follow up. 

Throat cancer is relatively uncommon and it has been estimated that about 1-1.5 percent of people will develop oral, pharyngeal or laryngeal cancer in their lifetime.

The two primary types of throat cancer are squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. Rarer types of cancer may include adenoid cystic, and neuroendocrine carcinomas.

Other possible causes of a "stuck throat sensation" include conditions causing:

  1. irritation or inflammation of the pharynx - pharyngitis, tonsillitis, and postnasal drip secondary to chronic sinusitis;
  2. gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  3. hypertrophy of the base of the tongue
  4. muscular disorders such as esophageal webs, esophageal motor disorders.


In order to investigate these causes, a careful clinical history-taking and physical examination must be performed, accompanied by a nasolaryngoscopy.

Other investigations may also be performed, such as:

  1. chest x-ray
  2. barium swallow
  3. videofluoroscopy
  4. and oesophago-gastro-duodenoscopy (OGD)

If any suspicious masses are found, a biopsy must be performed in order to assess
the benign or malignant nature of the mass.

Best regards
Dr Quah

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