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Head and neck cancer risk factors

As with many types of cancer, the risk of developing a head and neck cancer may be increased by certain lifestyle behaviors and environmental factors, such as smoking and exposure to carcinogens.

Risk factors for head and neck cancer also depend on the location and type of cancer.

cancer risks

Head and neck cancer risk factors


  • Poor nutrition and vitamin deficiencies


  • The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), known for causing "mono" in young adults, may be associated with the development of certain cancers, including nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • Two inherited genetic syndromes, Fanconi anemia and Dyskeratosis congenita, may greatly increase the likelihood of developing throat and mouth cancers in people at an early age.
  • Exposure to sunlight may increase the risk of lip and oral cancer.


  • Tobacco is a risk factor common to all head and neck cancers. The National Cancer Institute reports that 85 percent of people who develop head and neck cancers have a history of tobacco use, particularly smoking. Chewing tobacco is also linked to an increased risk for oral cavity cancer.
  • Alcohol abuse


  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection


  • Exposure to high doses of radiation therapy, particularly in the head or neck region

Understanding risk factors

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer. Not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. If you think you may be at risk, you should discuss it with your doctor.

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