17th August, 20204 min read

What are the symptoms of tonsil cancer — and how is it treated?

Medical reviewer:
Healthily's medical team
Healthily's medical team
Alex Bussey
Alex Bussey
Last reviewed: 18/08/2020
Medically reviewed

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Your tonsils are a pair of organs found at the back of your throat and it’s thought that they support your immune system.

Tonsil cancer is where a tumour starts to grow in your tonsils.

It can develop at any time, but studies show that you’re more likely to get tonsil cancer if you smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol.

A type of human papillomavirus (HPV) called HPV16 can also increase your risk of getting tonsil cancer.

HPV is a group of many different viruses that can be spread by sexual contact. They don’t always cause symptoms, but some people will develop warts around their mouth or genitals.

HPV16 can infect the cells that line your tonsils, damaging their DNA and making them grow out of control.

It's not clear if this type of HPV has to combine with other factors (such as smoking or drinking alcohol) to cause cancer or if it causes tonsil cancer on its own. More research is needed to understand the link.

The rate of tonsil cancer has increased in the last 40 years and the rise has been linked to the increase in HPV infections.

woman comforting a man with a sore throat

What are the symptoms of tonsil cancer?

Common symptoms of tonsil cancer include a persistent sore throat, difficulty swallowing, a lump in your neck or a sore ear.

Tonsil cancer is also known to cause:

  • sores or ulcers that don’t heal for several weeks (these will probably be in the back of your mouth or throat)
  • blood in your saliva or bleeding in the mouth
  • mouth pain
  • lumps in the mouth
  • changes in voice or speech problems
  • difficulty moving your jaw
  • pain when swallowing
  • bad breath
  • unexplained, persistent numbness or an odd feeling on your lips or tongue
  • white or red patches on the lining of your mouth

You should also look out for any unexplained lumps in the mouth or neck that don’t go away on their own, because these can be a sign of tonsil cancer.

Many of the common symptoms of tonsil cancer can be caused by other conditions such as tonsillitis or a tonsil stone.

However, if you’re worried about tonsil cancer or you have any of the symptoms for more than 3 weeks, see a doctor as soon as you can.

Tonsil cancer is much easier to treat if it's caught early, so it’s always worth taking the time to get your symptoms checked.

How is tonsil cancer treated?


Your doctor may recommend surgery to remove your cancer and some of the surrounding tissues.

They may also recommend surgically removing some of your lymph nodes in your neck at the same time. These are small glands that help to trap viruses and other bacteria before they can infect other parts of your body.

Your lymph nodes can also trap cancer cells from your tongue and tonsils, so they may contain cancerous cells that need to be removed and destroyed.


Radiotherapy is also used to treat tonsil cancer. This is where X-rays are targeted at your tonsils to kill cancerous cells.

Radiotherapy is sometimes used after surgery to prevent cancer from coming back, but it can also be used instead of surgery in some cases.


Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses medicine to stop cancer cells from growing. It can be used to treat tonsil cancer at the same time as surgery and radiotherapy.

Key points

  • cases of tonsil cancer are becoming more common
  • you’re more likely to get tonsil cancer if you smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol
  • common symptoms include a persistent sore throat, difficulty swallowing, a lump in your neck or a sore ear
  • if you catch tonsil cancer before it’s had time to spread your doctor may recommend surgery
  • treatment depends on the size and location of your cancer
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