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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 cancer, 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 factors greatly increase the risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer:
Tobacco. Use of tobacco—including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, and snuff—is the single largest risk factor for head and neck cancer. Pipe smoking is particularly linked to cancer in the part of the lips that touch the pipe stem. Chewing tobacco or snuff is associated with a 50% increase in risk of cancers of the cheeks, gums, and inner surface of the lips where the tobacco has the most contact.
Alcohol. Frequent and heavy consumption of alcohol increases the risk of head and neck cancer.
Eighty-five percent (85%) of head and neck cancer is linked to tobacco use. Using alcohol and tobacco together increases this risk even more. Recent studies have suggested that people who have used marijuana may be at higher than average risk for head and neck cancer. Secondhand smoke may also increase a person’s risk of head and neck cancer. Stopping the use of tobacco products is the most important thing a person can do, even for people who have been smoking for many years.
Other factors that can raise a person’s risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer include:
Prolonged sun exposure. Prolonged sun exposure is linked to cancer in the lip area. To reduce your risk of lip cancer, reduce your exposure to sunlight and other sources of ultraviolent (UV) light. Read more about protecting your skin from the sun.
Human papillomavirus (HPV). Research indicates that infection with this virus is a risk factor for oral and oropharyngeal cancer. In fact, HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer in the tonsils and the base of the tongue have become more frequent in recent years. HPV is most commonly passed from person to person during sexual activity, including oral sex. 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.
To reduce your risk of HPV infection, limit 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. Learn more about HPV and cancer.
Gender. Men are more likely to develop oral and oropharyngeal cancer than women.
Fair skin. Fair skin is linked to a higher risk of lip cancer.
Age. People over 45 are at increased risk for oral cancer, although this type of cancer can develop in people of any age.
Oral hygiene. People with poor oral hygiene/dental care may have an increased risk of oral cavity cancer. Poor dental health or ongoing irritation from poorly fitting dentures, especially in people who use alcohol and tobacco products, may contribute to an increased risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer. Regular dental examinations by a dentist can help to find oral cavity cancer and some oropharyngeal cancers at an earlier stage.
Poor diet/nutrition. A diet low in fruits and vegetables, a vitamin A deficiency, and chewing betel nuts (a nut containing a mild stimulant that is popular in Asia) increase the risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer.
Weakened immune system. People with a weakened immune system have a higher risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer.