Risk factors for head and neck cancer

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on May 19, 2022.

As with many types of cancer, the risk of developing head and neck cancer may be higher for patients exposed to certain environmental factors or who have a history with specific lifestyle behaviors, such as tobacco and alcohol use. In fact, 85 percent of head and neck diagnoses are linked to tobacco use, and at least 75 percent of head and neck cancers are caused by the combined use of tobacco and alcohol.

People infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV) are at higher risk for some throat and mouth cancers. HPV has been on the rise in recent years, especially among people in their 40s and 50s. Risk factors for head and neck cancer include:

Tobacco: This is the single largest risk factor for head and neck cancer. Smoking presents the greatest risk of developing this type of cancer, but secondhand smoke may also increase the risk. Chewing tobacco has been linked to oral cavity cancer.

Alcohol: Excessive drinking is the second largest risk factor for cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx and esophagus.

Gender: Men are two to three times more likely than women to develop head and neck cancer.

Age: Head and neck cancer is more common in people over the age of 50.

Certain illnesses: Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), HPV and two inherited genetic syndromes—Fanconi anemia and dyskeratosis congenita—have been linked to head and neck cancer.

Sun exposure: Prolonged sun exposure may increase the risk of lip and oral cancer.

Radiation therapy: High doses of radiation therapy, particularly administered in the head and neck region, may increase the risk of developing this type of cancer.

Nutrition: Poor nutrition and vitamin deficiencies may raise a patient’s risk of developing the disease.

Vaping: Most physicians discourage vaping, although more studies are needed.

Next topic: What are the symptoms of head and neck cancer?

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