Nasopharyngeal Cancer: Risk Factors and Prevention

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2022

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about the factors that increase the chance of developing nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC). 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.

There are 2 substances that greatly increase the risk of developing NPC:

  • Tobacco. Tobacco use – including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, and snuff – is the single greatest risk factor for head and neck cancer. About 85% of head and neck cancer is linked to tobacco use. Smokers with NPC are most likely to have the squamous cell type. Secondhand smoke may also increase a person’s risk of developing head and neck cancer.

  • Alcohol. Frequent and heavy consumption of alcohol is a risk factor for head and neck cancer. Using alcohol and tobacco together increases this risk even more, although the influence of this in NPC is less than that for other types of head and neck cancers.

Other factors that may raise a person’s risk of NPC include:

  • Geography/ancestry. NPC is most common in people who live in southeast China and Hong Kong. When people move away from high-risk areas of the world to countries where NPC is less common, the following generations of their family have a slow lowering in their risk of NPC.

  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). Exposure to EBV plays a role in causing NPC. EBV is more commonly known as the virus that causes mononucleosis or “mono.”

  • Gender. Men are 2 times more likely than women to develop NPC.

  • Age. The risk of NPC increases as a person gets older. However, about half of the people diagnosed with NPC in the United States are younger than 55. A person of any age can be diagnosed with NPC.

  • Eating habits. Eating large amounts of salt-cured fish and meats on a regular basis increases a person's risk of developing NPC.

  • Environmental exposure. Extensive exposure to dust and smoke may increase the risk of NPC.

  • Marijuana. Recent research suggests that people who have used marijuana may be at higher risk for head and neck cancer.


Different factors cause different types of cancer. Researchers continue to look into what factors cause NPC, including ways to prevent it. Although there is no proven way to completely prevent NPC, you may be able to lower your risk. Talk with your health care team for more information about your personal risk of cancer.

Although some of the risk factors of NPC cannot be controlled, such as ancestry, several can be avoided by making lifestyle changes. Stopping the use of all tobacco products is the most important thing a person can do to reduce their risk of NPC, even for people who have used tobacco products for many years.

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.