Pain in the front of your neck: When to worry

Tobacco use is the most important risk factor for head and neck cancers, including throat cancer. Take note of pain in your neck to the side of your windpipe.

Pain in your neck to the side of your windpipe could be a sign of many minor conditions such as a sore throat, swollen lymph nodes or muscle strains such as whiplash or from bending over and staring at your phone too long.

Rarely, pain in the front of your neck beside the windpipe can be a sign of a heart attack. It’s important to get emergency help for heart attack symptoms like chest pain (though not always); a squeezing feeling in your chest; pain in the neck, back or abdomen; pain in at least one arm; shortness of breath; cold sweat; and nausea.

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Infrequently, tenderness in one of the carotid arteries can become painful.

If the pain is accompanied by a mass on the side of the neck — usually a swollen lymph node — and hoarseness, a cough, difficulty swallowing and squeaky noises when breathing, it’s worth making an appointment with your physician.

Tobacco use is the most important risk factor for head and neck cancers, including throat cancer. Adding moderate or heavy alcohol use to smoking cigarettes, pipes, cigars and other tobacco products increases your risk of head and neck cancer.

READ MORE: What to do if you have a painless lump on the side of your neck

“While cigarettes and alcohol are both risk factors for laryngeal cancer, evidence shows that using the two together may create a synergy, as heavy consumption of alcohol and cigarettes has been shown to multiply the risk of cancer in the larynx. Furthermore, we know there is an increase of throat cancers caused by viruses in the past 10 years.” said Aaron C. Spalding, M.D., Ph.D., a radiation oncologist and medical director of the Norton Cancer Institute Head and Neck Tumor Program.

Age is also a risk factor, as throat cancers tend to grow slowly over time.

Related: Does HPV cause throat cancer?

The larynx, vocal cords or voice box all refer to the front part of your throat that allows speaking and plays a role in breathing and swallowing. The first sign of laryngeal cancer is often a swollen lymph node.

The pharynx is a passageway at the back of the throat that connects the nasal cavity to the esophagus. Symptoms of pharyngeal cancer can resemble cancer in the larynx with soreness on one side, a lump, ear pain and difficulty swallowing.

Cancer in the nasopharynx — the top part of the throat closer to the nasal cavity — often is noticed first as a swollen lymph node in the neck and can cause a stuffy nose, nosebleeds and hearing loss.

At the bottom of the throat, the hypopharynx moves food from the throat to the esophagus. Cancer in this area can cause difficulty swallowing.

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