Head and Neck Cancer: Risk Factors and Prevention

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2022

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about what factors increase the chance of developing head and neck cancer. Use the menu to see other pages.

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. Knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.

There are 2 substances that greatly increase the risk of developing a head and neck cancer:

  • Tobacco. Tobacco use includes smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes; chewing tobacco; and using snuff. It is the single largest risk factor for head and neck cancer. Researchers estimate that 70% to 80% of head and neck cancers are 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.

  • Alcohol. Frequent and heavy alcohol consumption 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 shows that infection with HPV is a risk factor for head and neck cancer. Sexual activity with a person who has HPV is the most common way someone gets HPV. There are different types of HPV, called strains. Research links some HPV strains more strongly with certain types of cancers. HPV vaccines can prevent people from developing certain cancers. Learn more about HPV and cancer and see Latest Research for more information about HPV and head and neck cancer.

  • 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 2 to 3 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 the age of 40 are at higher risk for head and neck cancer.

  • Poor oral and dental hygiene. Poor care of the mouth and teeth may increase the risk of head and neck cancer.

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

  • Marijuana use. Research suggests that people who have used marijuana may be at higher risk for 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 may be 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.

  • Exposure to radiation. Exposure to radiation is associated with salivary gland cancer.

  • Previous history of head and neck cancer. People who have had 1 head and neck cancer have a higher chance of developing another head and neck cancer in the future.


Different factors cause different types of cancer. Researchers continue to look into what factors cause this type of cancer, including ways to prevent it. Although there is no proven way to completely prevent this disease, you may be able to lower your risk. Talk with your health care team for more information about your personal risk 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 is also important. Vaccines that protect individuals from cancer-causing HPV subtypes have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These are effective in preventing infection prior to exposure which occurs during sexual activity. HPV exposure can be limited by reducing your number of sexual partners and using barrier methods of contraception during sex.

  • Maintaining proper care of dentures. Poorly fitting dentures can trap tobacco and alcohol’s cancer-causing substances. People who wear dentures should have their dentures evaluated by a dentist at least every 5 years to ensure a good fit. Dentures should be removed every night and cleaned and rinsed thoroughly every day.

The next section in this guide is Screening. It explains how tests may find cancer before signs or symptoms appear. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.