Risk factors and causes of head and neck cancers

We do not know exactly what causes head and neck cancers. But there are things that can increase your risk of developing it. These are called risk factors. Drinking heavily and smoking over many years, especially when you do both, are the main risk factors. Head and neck cancers are more common in men than in women and most common in people aged over 50.

Some other risk factors are:

  • holding a pipe or cigarette on your lip
  • chewing tobacco or betel quid (paan)
  • Human papilloma virus (HPV) infection
  • having a low immunity
  • 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.

Having poor mouth hygiene or dental disease may slightly increase the risk of mouth cancer.

Risk factors and causes of head and neck cancers

The causes of head and neck cancers are not fully understood. We know that certain things can increase a person’s chances of developing it. These are called risk factors. Having one or more risk factors does not mean you will definitely get a head and neck cancer. And if you do not have any risk factors, it does not mean you will not get it.

The main risk factors for head and neck cancers 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

Smoking tobacco increases the risk of developing many types of head and neck cancer, including mouth cancers, throat cancers and cancer of the voice box (larynx). The more cigarettes someone smokes, and the more years they smoke for, the higher the risk.

Holding a pipe or cigarette on your lip when smoking also increases your risk of developing lip cancer.


Chewing tobacco or betel quid (paan)

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

I went to my GP, I did a written programme of my intention to give up smoking and was started on Zyban, which personally I found marvellous.

Amy, diagnosed with 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.

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.


Gender

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


Age

The risk of developing a head and neck cancer increases as you get older. It is most common in people aged 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 last 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 that line 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 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. You can also contact our support line on 0808 808 00 00.


Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection

Some cancers of the nasopharynx are linked to a type of virus called the Epstein-Barr virus. This is a type of virus that causes glandular fever. Only a very small number of people who have glandular fever go on to develop nasopharyngeal cancer in their lifetime.


Low immunity

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

  • do not have a healthy 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

Exposure to sunlight over a prolonged period of time increases the risk of developing cancer on the outside of the lip.


Occupational exposure

Prolonged exposure to some types of dust and certain chemicals at work increases the risk of developing cancers of the nasopharynx and sinuses. These are:

  • hardwood dust
  • leather dust
  • formaldehyde (found in leather and some types of furniture dust).


Pre-cancerous conditions

Pre-cancerous conditions of the mouth increase the risk of a cancer developing in the mouth. These conditions include leukoplakia and erythroplakia. These are white or red patches in the mouth that are often linked to tobacco use.

Eythroplakia is less common than leukoplakia. But having eythroplakia is linked to a higher risk of cancer developing.


Oral health

The risk of developing mouth cancer is slightly higher in people:

  • with poor oral hygiene
  • who have dental disease.

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