Head and Neck Cancer Facts: Risk Factors

There are several factors that may increase the risk of developing head and neck cancer. The number one risk factor for head and neck cancer is tobacco use – smoking it or chewing it. According to the National Cancer Institute, tobacco use is linked to 85% of head and neck cancer cases. Another large risk factor is consuming alcohol.

Head and neck risk factors depend on location.

  • Oral Cavity (Mouth): Risk factors include tobacco use, alcohol use, sun exposure, and possibly human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.
  • Salivary Glands: Risk factors include radiation therapy or diagnostic X-rays.
  • Paranasal Sinuses and Nasal Cavity: Risk factors include inhalation of certain industrial elements (like wood or nickel dust) and possibly tobacco or alcohol use.
  • Nasopharynx: Risk factors include work-related exposure to wood dust, consuming certain salted foods or preservatives, and the Epstein-Barr virus. It is also worth noting that those of Asian ancestry (part Chinese) appear to develop Nasopharynx cancer more easily than the general population.
  • Oropharynx: Risk factors include tobacco use, alcohol use, poor oral hygiene, and possibly HPV.
  • Larynx:(Voicebox) Risk factors include tobacco use, alcohol use, and exposure to airborne asbestos (especially in the work environment).
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Other risk factors for head and neck cancer may include the following:

  • Use of paan (betel quid) in the mouth – typically used by Southeast Asian immigrants
  • Consuming Yerba mate – a beverage similar to tea typically consumed by South Americans

Reducing Your Risk of Head and Neck Cancer

While some risk factors are beyond your control, like previous radiation treatment or genetics (your ancestry), there are things you can do to help prevent the development of head and neck cancer. The two most important measures are to quit using tobacco and consuming less alcohol. Consult your doctor to learn more about what you can do to reduce your risk of developing head and neck cancer and how often to have medical checkups.

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