Risk factors and causes

We don’t know exactly what causes head and neck cancer. But there are things that can increase your risk of developing it, called risk factors. Drinking heavily and smoking over many years, especially when you do both, are the main risk factors. Head and neck cancer is more common in men than in women. Some other risk factors are:

  • holding a pipe or cigarette on your lip
  • chewing tobacco or betel quid (paan)
  • Human papilloma virus (HPV) infection
  • a diet that includes some types of preserved or salted food
  • prolonged exposure to some types of dust and certain chemicals at work
  • pre-cancerous conditions of the mouth, such as leukoplakia and erythroplakia
  • long-term exposure to sunlight or sunbeds.

Having a close relative with head and neck cancer may also slightly increase your risk. Having poor mouth hygiene or dental disease may slightly increase the risk of mouth cancer.

Risk factors and causes

The exact causes of head and neck cancer aren’t fully understood. We know that certain things called risk factors can increase a person’s chances of developing it. Having one or more risk factors doesn’t mean you will definitely get head and neck cancer. Equally, if you don’t have any risk factors, it doesn’t mean you won’t get it.

The main risk factors for head and neck cancer are tobacco and alcohol. It is thought that about 3 out of 4 head and neck cancers (75%) are linked to tobacco or alcohol use.


Smoking cigarettes, cigars or pipes


Chewing tobacco or betel quid (paan)

Chewing tobacco or betel quid increases the risk of developing mouth cancer.


Drinking alcohol

Drinking alcohol is linked to cancers of the mouth and throat. The more alcohol a person drinks, and the more years they drink for, the higher the risk.

Alcohol and tobacco together greatly increase the risk of head and neck cancer. People who both smoke and drink heavily over several years have the highest risk of developing head and neck cancers.


Gender

Head and neck cancers are more common in men than in women.


Age

The risk of developing head and neck cancer increases as we get older. It’s most common in people over 50, although younger people can be affected too.


Human papilloma virus (HPV) infection

Cancers at the back of the tongue and in the tonsils (cancers of the oropharynx) have become more common over the past 20 years.

Many of these cancers are linked to infection with a type of virus called human papilloma virus 16 (HPV 16). HPV affects the skin and moist membranes lining the body, such as the mouth and throat.

HPV is spread through body-to-body contact, often during sexual activity. Exactly how a person gets the virus is uncertain, and it’s not always possible to find a sexual cause. It’s thought there may be other ways of spreading the virus that have not yet been identified.

We have information about HPV and cancer.


Low immunity

Some people with reduced immunity have an increased risk of developing head and neck cancer. Your immunity may be low if you:

  • have a very poor diet
  • are taking medication to suppress your immune system after an organ transplant
  • have a condition such as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) or AIDS.


Sunlight and sun beds

Exposure to natural and artificial sunlight over a prolonged period of time increases the risk of developing cancer on the outside of the lip. About 1 in 3 people diagnosed with lip cancer (33%) work outdoors.


Diet


Occupational exposure

Prolonged exposure to some types of dust and certain chemicals when at work increases the risk of developing cancers of the nasopharynx and sinuses. Hardwood dust, leather dust and formaldehyde (found in leather and some types of furniture dust) are linked to some cancers of the nasopharynx and sinuses.


Pre-cancerous conditions

Pre-cancerous conditions of the mouth, such as leukoplakia and erythroplakia (white or red patches in the mouth often linked to tobacco use), increase the risk of a cancer developing in the mouth.


Family history

There may be a slightly higher risk of developing a head and neck cancer if you have a close relative (a parent, brother, sister or child) who has had a head and neck cancer. People who have a rare inherited condition called Fanconi anaemia have an increased risk of developing mouth and throat cancer.


Oral health

The risk of mouth cancer is slightly increased in people with poor oral hygiene and those who have dental disease.

Back to Causes and risk factors

Human papilloma virus (HPV)

Human papilloma virus (or HPV) is a common infection. Some types of HPV can increase the risk of developing cancer.