Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer: Risk Factors and Prevention

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 01/2019

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about the factors that increase the chance of developing laryngeal or hypopharyngeal cancer and what people can do to lower their risk. 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 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.

These 2 factors greatly increase the risk of developing laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer:

  • Tobacco. Use of tobacco, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, marijuana, and snuff, is the single largest risk factor for head and neck cancer. Eighty-five percent (85%) of head and neck cancer is linked to tobacco use. Secondhand smoke may also increase a person’s risk.

  • Alcohol. Frequent and heavy consumption of alcohol increases the risk of both laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer. Using tobacco and alcohol together increases this risk even more.

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

  • Gender. Men are 4 to 5 times more likely than women to develop laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer.

  • Age. People over 55 are at higher risk, although younger people may also develop these types of cancer.

  • Race/Ethnicity. Black people and white people are more likely to develop laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer than Asian people and Hispanic people.

  • Occupational inhalants. Exposure to asbestos, wood dust, paint fumes, and certain chemicals may increase a person’s risk of developing laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer.

  • Poor nutrition. A diet low in vitamins A and E can raise a person’s risk of laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer. Foods that are rich in these vitamins may help prevent the disease, including eating fresh fruits and vegetables, although more research is needed.

  • Plummer-Vinson syndrome. This rare condition involves iron deficiency and causes difficulty swallowing. The presence of this disease increases the risk of hypopharyngeal cancer.

  • Poor oral hygiene. Not brushing teeth regularly and not using dental floss can increase the risk of head and neck cancer. Dental checkups twice a year are encouraged for all people at risk for these types of cancer.

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Chronic reflux of stomach acid into the larynx and pharynx may be associated with laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer. However, no specific causal relationship has been shown. This may or may not be associated with the symptoms of heartburn.

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV). Although HPV is the primary cause of cancers in the base of the tongue and tonsils, there are rare cases of laryngeal cancer caused by HPV. Sexual activity with someone 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. There are vaccines available to protect you from some HPV strains.

Prevention

Different factors cause different types of cancer. Researchers continue to look into what factors cause these types 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. 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. Avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke is also important. Additionally, drinking alcohol increases the risk. Even people who drink light amounts (1 drink per day) are at higher risk for developing cancer. Talk with your health care team for more information about your personal risk of cancer.

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.