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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:
- Use of tobacco (including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, and snuff), which is the single largest risk factor for head and neck cancer
- Frequent and heavy consumption of alcohol
Eighty-five percent (85%) of head and neck cancer is linked to tobacco use. Using alcohol and tobacco together increases this risk. Recent research suggests that people who have used marijuana may be at higher risk for head and neck cancer. Secondhand smoke may also increase a person’s risk of head and neck cancer.
Other factors that can raise a person’s risk of developing head and neck cancer include the following:
Prolonged sun exposure. This is especially linked to cancer in the lip area (as well as skin cancer of the head and neck and other chronically sun-exposed areas, such as the hands).
Human papillomavirus (HPV). Research indicates that infection with this virus is a risk factor for head and neck cancer. HPV is most commonly 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 cancers. HPV vaccines protect against certain strains of the virus. Learn more about HPV and cancer.
Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). Exposure to EBV, which is more commonly known as the virus that causes mononucleosis, plays a role in causing nasopharyngeal cancer to develop.
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 A and B vitamins 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.
Although some of the risk factors of head and neck cancer cannot be changed, such as age, several can be avoided by making lifestyle changes. Stopping the use of all tobacco products is the most important thing a person can do, 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
- Avoiding marijuana (Discuss marijuana as a risk factor with your doctor.)
- 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, because 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.