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Oropharyngeal Cancer

< Head, Neck and Skin Cancer

Oropharyngeal Cancer

About Oropharyngeal Cancer

Oropharyngeal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the oropharynx.

The oropharynx is the middle part of the pharynx (throat) behind the mouth. It includes the following:

  • Back one-third of the tongue.
  • Soft palate.
  • Side and back walls of the throat.
  • Tonsils.

The pharynx is a hollow tube about 5 inches long that starts behind the nose and ends where the trachea (windpipe) and esophagus (tube from the throat to the stomach) begin. Air and food pass through the pharynx on the way to the trachea or the esophagus.

Oropharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer. Sometimes more than one cancer can occur in the oropharynx and in other parts of the oral cavity, nose, throat, larynx (vocal cords), trachea, or esophagus at the same time.

Most oropharyngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Squamous cells are the thin, flat cells that line the inside of the oropharynx.


Signs and symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer include a lump in the neck and a sore throat.

These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by oropharyngeal cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • A sore throat that does not go away.
  • Trouble swallowing.
  • Trouble opening the mouth fully.
  • Trouble moving the tongue.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.
  • Ear pain.
  • A lump in the back of the mouth, throat, or neck.
  • A change in voice.
  • Coughing up blood.

Sometimes oropharyngeal cancer does not cause early signs or symptoms.

Risk Factors

Smoking or being infected with human papillomavirus can increase the risk of oropharyngeal cancer.

The most common risk factors for oropharyngeal cancer include the following:

  • Being infected with human papillomavirus (HPV). The number of oropharyngeal cancers linked to HPV infection is increasing.
  • A history of smoking for more than 10 pack years.
  • Heavy alcohol use.

Other risk factors for oropharyngeal cancer include:

  • A diet low in fruits and vegetables.
  • Drinking maté, a stimulant drink common in South America.
  • Chewing betel quid, a stimulant commonly used in parts of Asia.