Head and Neck Cancer: Risk Factors and Prevention

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2014

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A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer. Although risk factors often influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop the disease, while others with no known risk factors do. However, knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.

Two risk factors greatly increase the risk of head and neck cancer:

Tobacco use. Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes; chewing tobacco; and using snuff are the single largest risk factors for head and neck cancer. Eighty-five percent (85%) of head and neck cancer is linked to tobacco use, and the amount of tobacco use may affect prognosis, which is the chance of recovery. In addition, secondhand smoke may increase a person’s risk of developing head and neck cancer. Recent research suggests that people who have used marijuana may also be at higher risk for head and neck cancer.

Frequent and heavy consumption of alcohol. Alcohol use raises the risk of developing cancer in the mouth, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus. Using alcohol and tobacco together increases this risk even more.

Other factors that can raise a person’s risk of developing head and neck cancer include:

Prolonged sun exposure. This is especially linked to cancer in the lip area, as well as skin cancer of the head and neck.

Human papillomavirus (HPV). Research indicates that infection with this virus is becoming an increasingly common risk factor for some types of head and neck cancer. HPV is most often passed from person to person during sexual activity. There are different types, or strains, of HPV, and some strains are more strongly associated with certain types of cancer. HPV vaccines protect against certain strains of the virus. (See the Latest Research section for more information.)

Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). Exposure to EBV, which is more commonly known as the virus that causes mononucleosis or "mono," plays a role in the development of nasopharyngeal cancer.

Gender. Men are two to three times more likely than women to develop head and neck cancer. However, the rate of head and neck cancer in women has been rising for several decades.

Age. People over 40 are at higher risk for head and neck cancer.

Race. Black people are more likely than white people to develop certain types of cancer of the head and neck.

Poor oral/dental hygiene. Poor care of the mouth and teeth has been suggested as a factor that may increase the risk of head and neck cancer.

Environmental/occupational inhalants. Exposure to asbestos, wood dust, paint fumes, and certain chemicals may increase a person’s risk of head and neck cancer.

Poor nutrition. A diet low in vitamins A and B can raise a person’s risk of head and neck cancer.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and laryngopharyngeal reflux disease (LPRD). Reflux of stomach acid into the upper airway and throat has been suggested as a factor associated with the development of head and neck cancer.

Weakened immune system. A weakened immune system can raise a person’s risk of head and neck cancer.

Prevention

Research continues to look into what factors cause this type of cancer and what people can do to lower their personal risk. Although there is no proven way to completely prevent this disease, and some risk factors of head and neck cancer cannot be changed, such as age, there may be steps you can take to lower your cancer risk. Talk with your doctor if you have concerns about your personal risk of developing this type of cancer.

Stopping the use of all tobacco products is the most important thing a person can do to reduce their risk, even for people who have been smoking for many years. Other steps that can reduce the risk of head and neck cancer include:

  • Avoiding alcohol
  • Discussing marijuana as a risk factor with your doctor and avoiding marijuana use
  • Using sunscreen regularly, including lip balm with an adequate sun protection factor (SPF)
  • Reducing your risk of HPV infection by limiting the number of sexual partners, since having many partners increases the risk of HPV infection. Using a condom cannot fully protect you from HPV during sex.
  • Maintaining proper care of dentures. Poorly fitting dentures can trap tobacco and alcohol’s cancer-causing substances. Denture wearers should have their dentures evaluated by a dentist at least every five years to ensure a good fit. Dentures should be removed every night and cleaned and rinsed thoroughly every day.

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