Oral and Oropharyngeal 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 oral and oropharyngeal 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 cancer, 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.

The risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer is greatly increased by 2 factors:

  • Tobacco use. Using tobacco, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, 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. Pipe smoking in particular has been 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 the risk of developing cancer in the cheeks, gums, and inner surface of the lips, where the tobacco has the most contact. Secondhand smoke may also increase a person’s risk of head and neck cancer.

  • Alcohol. Frequent and heavy consumption of alcohol increases the risk of head and neck cancer. Using alcohol and tobacco together increases this risk even more.

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

  • Prolonged sun exposure. Excessive and unprotected exposure to the sun is linked with cancer in the lip area. To reduce your risk of lip cancer, decrease your exposure to sunlight and other sources of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Read more about protecting your skin from the sun.

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV). Research shows that infection with the HPV virus is a risk factor for oropharyngeal cancer. In recent years, HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer in the tonsils and the base of the tongue has become more common. Sexual activity, including oral sex, 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 HPV.

    To reduce your risk of HPV infection, limit your number of sexual partners. Having many partners increases the risk of HPV infection. Using a condom does not fully protect you from HPV during sex. It is also likely that receiving an HPV vaccination before exposure to HPV can reduce the risk of oropharynx cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend HPV vaccination for all preteen boys and girls.

  • 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 older than 45 have an increased risk for oral cancer, although this type of cancer can develop in people of any age.

  • Poor oral hygiene. People with poor oral hygiene or 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 examinations by a dentist or dental hygienist can help detect oral cavity cancer and some oropharyngeal cancers at an early stage.

  • Poor diet/nutrition. A diet low in fruits and vegetables and a vitamin A deficiency may increase the risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer. Chewing betel nuts, a nut containing a mild stimulant that is popular in Asia, also raises a person’s risk of developing oral and oropharyngeal cancer.

  • Weakened immune system. People with a weakened immune system may have a higher risk of developing oral and oropharyngeal cancer.

  • Marijuana use. Recent studies have suggested that people who have used marijuana may be at higher-than-average risk for head and neck cancer.


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. Several of the risk factors for oral and oropharyngeal cancer can be avoided by making healthy lifestyle choices.

Stopping the use of all tobacco products is the most important thing a person can do to reduce the risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer, even for people who have been using tobacco for many years.

Reducing your risk of HPV infection is also important. The HPV vaccine Gardasil is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for prevention of oral and oropharyngeal cancer. Limiting your number of sexual partners can also reduce your risk of HPV. Using a condom during sex cannot fully protect you from HPV.

Talk with your health care team if you have concerns about your personal risk of developing these types 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.