Tonsil cancer begins in the cells of the tonsils. The tonsils are two oval-shaped pads in the back of the mouth that are part of the body's immune system fighting against germs.

Tonsil cancer often causes difficulty swallowing and a feeling that something is caught in the throat. It is often diagnosed late in the disease, when cancer has spread to nearby areas, such as the tongue and the lymph nodes.

Treatment for tonsil cancer usually involves surgery to remove the cancer. In some cases radiation therapy and chemotherapy also are recommended.


Tonsil cancer may have one or more of these symptoms:

  • Tonsil is larger on one side.
  • A sore in the back of the mouth that will not heal.
  • Blood in the saliva.
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Mouth pain.
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing or speaking.
  • Intolerance to eating or drinking citrus foods.
  • Severe ear pain.


The specific cause of tonsil cancer is not known, yet several risk factors have been identified, including tobacco use, which is the strongest single risk factor for developing tonsil cancer, and alcohol use. Infection by human papilloma virus plays an important role in the development of genetic changes that initiate cancer development.

Risk Factors

A number of factors increase the risk of developing tonsil cancer. Not all people with risk factors will get tonsil cancer. Risk factors for tonsil cancer include:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Age over 50 years
  • Compromised immune system due to conditions such as HIV/AIDS, taking corticosteroids, or taking medications for organ transplant
  • Diets low in vegetables and fruits
  • Human papilloma virus (HPV) infection
  • Male gender
  • Smoking or use of other tobacco products

It is possible to lower the risk of tonsil cancer by:

  • Eating plenty of vegetables and fruits
  • Quitting smoking
  • Reducing alcohol intake


Complications of tonsil cancer can be serious, such as uncontrolled or heavy bleeding or respiratory or breathing problems. The best chance of curing tonsil cancer is if you detect it early. See a doctor if you have bleeding in the throat, notice sores or lumps in the back of the throat, have difficulty eating, swallowing or speaking, or have any other symptoms.

Tonsil cancer can be life threatening in some cases. Complications include:

  • Decreased ability to eat, drink, talk or breathe
  • Spread of cancer into nearby structures
  • Adverse effects of tonsil cancer treatments
  • Hemorrhage (uncontrolled bleeding)
  • Recurring cancer after treatment
  • Spread of cancer to distant areas of the body
  • Spread of cancer to lymph nodes in the neck


There's no proven way to prevent tonsil cancer from occurring. But in order to reduce the risk of throat cancer:

  • Stop smoking or don't start smoking.
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation, if at all.
  • Choose a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables.
  • Protect yourself from HPV.