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Risk factors for throat 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 September 12, 2022.

As with many cancers, the risk of developing throat cancer increases with age, with most people being over the age of 65. Men are two to three times more likely than women to develop throat cancer in their lifetime.

What causes throat cancer?

Genetic mutations in the cells of the throat lining cause throat cancer. These genetic mutations may cause the cells to grow out of control and form a tumor. Malignant (cancerous) tumors may also spread to other tissues and organs beyond the throat.

These genetic mutations may be caused by a variety of factors. While they can develop in any cell, the body’s natural defenses usually destroy them. But these defenses decay with age, which increases the likelihood that the mutated cells will survive and become cancerous.

Other causes of mutations to the cells of the throat include infection with certain viruses, exposure to toxins in tobacco smoke and alcohol, or damage caused by stomach acids.

Risk factors differ depending on where the cancer grows in the throat.

General

Lack of fruits and vegetables: A diet low in fruits and vegetables may increase the likelihood of developing throat cancer.

Lifestyle

Tobacco use: The use of cigarettes, pipes and/or cigars may increase the likelihood of developing throat cancer.

Alcohol use: Excessive use of alcohol may increase your throat cancer risk.

Other conditions

Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection: Research has found that HPV infection is responsible for many cancers, including anal cancer, penile cancer and cervical cancer. Can HPV cause throat cancer? Research indicates that the HPV virus is responsible for rising rates of throat cancer, particularly among patients with oropharyngeal cancer.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): When acid moves from the stomach into the esophagus, acid reflux develops. Chronic acid reflux, or GERD, may increase throat cancer risk depending on its frequency and severity.

Epstein-Barr virus (EBV): This common virus is transmitted via saliva. Contracting EBV may increase the likelihood of developing throat cancer.

Next topic: What are the symptoms of throat cancer?

Common questions on the causes of throat cancer

Can oral sex cause throat cancer? While oral sex itself doesn’t cause throat cancer, a link has been found between cancer and human papillomavirus (HPV). Some viruses, like HPV, may turn off genes that suppress cancer cell growth, allowing the cells to develop into cancer. HPV spreads through bodily fluids. Through oral sex, these fluids may infect the cells that line the throat, which may lead to throat cancer. HPV causes up to 70 percent of throat cancers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Can sperm cause throat cancer? The presence of sperm itself in the throat doesn’t cause cancer. However, HPV spreads through bodily fluids, including sperm, and, as noted above, a link has been found between cancer and HPV. So the presence of sperm in the throat that came from someone infected with HPV raises the risk of throat cancer.

Can vaping cause throat cancer? People haven’t been using vaping devices long enough for researchers to understand how vaping impacts cancer risk. Since it typically takes decades of cigarette smoking for lung cancer cases to arise, it may take years to understand the effects of vaping. However, it is widely known that tobacco use increases the risk of throat cancer. Vaping devices emit some of the same cancer-causing compounds as tobacco cigarettes, but in much lower quantities.

Can acid reflux cause throat cancer? It’s possible that inflammation and damage from excessive stomach acid from gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as GERD, may lead to genetic mutations that cause cells to become cancerous. The link between reflux and cancer is most apparent in the esophagus, which is located directly above the stomach. People with GERD have a slightly higher risk of developing esophageal cancer. Studies are still inconclusive as to GERD’s impact on throat cancers. Next topic: What are the symptoms of throat cancer?

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