Causes and risk factors of head and neck cancer
On this page
- What are risk factors?
- Smoking cigarettes, cigars or pipes
- Chewing tobacco or betel quid (paan)
- Drinking alcohol
- Human papilloma virus (HPV) infection
- Epstein Barr virus (EBV) infection
- Low immunity
- Occupational exposure
- Pre-cancerous conditions
- Oral health
- About our information
- How we can help
Holding a pipe or cigarette on your lip when smoking also increases your risk of developing lip cancer.
Drinking and smoking together greatly increase the risk of head and neck cancers. People who smoke and drink heavily over several years have the highest risk of developing head and neck cancers.
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 that line the body, such as the mouth and throat.
HPV is spread through body-to-body contact, often during sex. Exactly how a person gets the virus is uncertain, and it is not always possible to link the virus to sexual contact. It is thought there may be other ways of spreading the virus that have not yet been identified.
We have information about HPV and cancer.
Some people with reduced immunity have an increased risk of developing a head and neck cancer. Your immunity may be low if you:
Eythroplakia (red patches) is less common than leukoplakia (white patches). But having eythroplakia is linked to a higher risk of cancer developing.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our head and neck cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at email@example.com
British Association of Head and Neck Oncologists. Head and Neck Cancer: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines. 2016. Available from: https://www.bahno.org.uk/_userfiles/pages/files/ukheadandcancerguidelines2016.pdf (accessed September 2018).
Brockstein BE, Stenson KM, Song S. Overview of treatment for head and neck cancer. UpToDate https://www.uptodate.com/contents/overview-of-treatment-for-head-and-neck-cancer (accessed Spetember 2018).
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Cancer of the upper aerodigestive tract: assessment and management in people aged 16 and over. 2016. Available from: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng36 (accessed September 2018).
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Chris Alcock, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.
Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.