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Airway Tumors


Robert L. Keith

, MD, Division of Pulmonary Sciences and Critial Care Medicine, Department of Medicine, Eastern Colorado VA Healthcare System, University of Colorado

Last full review/revision Jul 2020| Content last modified Jul 2020

The windpipe (trachea), throat (pharynx), and voice box (larynx) can develop tumors that either grow into the structures or press on them, blocking breathing. Tumors from elsewhere in the body may also spread to these areas (metastasize).

Tumors that develop in the trachea are rare. They are often cancerous (malignant) and found at a locally advanced stage (having spread to nearby tissue or lymph nodes).

The most common malignant tracheal tumors include squamous cell carcinoma, adenoid cystic carcinoma, carcinoid tumors, and mucoepidermoid carcinomas.

The most common noncancerous (benign) airway tumor is a squamous papilloma, although other benign conditions can also occur.

Symptoms of Airway Tumors

Symptoms of airway tumors include

  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • Coughing
  • Coughing up blood (hemoptysis)
  • Wheezing or other abnormal breathing noises

Difficulty swallowing and hoarseness can also be present.

Diagnosis of Airway Tumors

  • Bronchoscopy

Doctors may consider an airway tumor if symptoms develop gradually and if standard treatments are ineffective, for example, if drugs used to treat asthma do not relieve wheezing. If an airway tumor is suspected, doctors do bronchoscopy. Bronchoscopy can both relieve airway blockage and allow specimens to be obtained for diagnosis.

If cancer is found, more extensive testing for staging is done.

Prognosis of Airway Tumors

Prognosis depends on the type of cancer. Cancers that spread to lymph nodes in the neck or chest or that grow into nearby structures tend to have a worse prognosis.

Treatment of Airway Tumors

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Obstruction reduction techniques

Certain types of airway tumors should be removed surgically if possible. In other cases, radiation therapy with or without chemotherapy or targeted therapies is recommended.

If surgery is not possible, certain less invasive procedures can be used to remove some of the tumor. Laser vaporization, photodynamic therapy, cryotherapy, and endobronchial brachytherapy are options to remove a tumor blocking an airway. If a tumor presses on the trachea, doctors may insert a stent to hold the trachea open or use radiation therapy to shrink the tumor.

More Information about Airway Tumors

The following are English language resources that provide information and support for patients and their caregivers. THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of this resource.

  • American Cancer Society: General information on all types of cancer, including prevention, testing, treatments and information for people living with cancer and their caregivers
  • American Cancer Society: Lung Cancer: More specific information from ACS on lung cancer, including types, screening and treatments
  • American Lung Association: General information on all types of lung diseases, including lung cancer and quitting smoking
  • American Lung Association: Lung Cancer: More specific information from ALA on lung cancer, including what to do after a lung cancer diagnosis
  • CancerCare: General information about all types of cancer, including resources for counseling and support groups
  • CancerCare: Lung Cancer: More specific information from Cancer Care for people with lung cancer, including support services and links to additional resources
  • National Cancer Institute: U. S. government resource on cancer, including research updates and information on clinical trials
  • National Cancer Institute: Lung Cancer: More specific information from the NCI on lung cancer, especially advances in treatment and the latest research findings
  • National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship: Advocates for high quality care for all people with cancer

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