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Head and Neck Cancer: Risk Factors

What is a risk factor?

A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of having a disease. Risk factors for a certain type of cancer might include smoking, diet, family history, or many other things. The exact cause of someone’s cancer may not be known. But risk factors can make it more likely for a person to have cancer.

Things you should know about risk factors for cancer:

  • Risk factors can increase a person's risk, but they do not necessarily cause the disease.

  • Some people with one or more risk factors never develop cancer. Other people can develop cancer and have no risk factors.

  • Some risk factors are very well known. But there is ongoing research about risk factors for many types of cancer.

Some risk factors, such as family history, may not be in your control. But others may be things you can change. Knowing what the risk factors are can help you make choices that might lower your risk. For example, if an unhealthy diet is a risk factor, you may choose to eat healthier foods. If excess weight is a risk factor, your healthcare provider may enocourage you to lose weight.

Who is at risk for head and neck cancer?

Man about to smoke a cigarette outdoors
Tobacco use is the single largest risk factor for head and neck cancer.

Risk factors for head and neck cancer include:

  • Using tobacco. Tobacco use is the single largest risk factor for head and neck cancer. People who smoke or chew tobacco, dip snuff, or smoke pipes have a much higher chance of getting head and neck cancer than people who do not use tobacco. Smokeless tobacco greatly increases the risk. The risk is related to the intensity—how many cigarettes, cigars, or pipes you smoke. And the risk is also related to how many years you have smoked. Smoking marijuana or being exposed to secondhand smoke, or other people's smoke, may also increase your risk of head and neck cancer. 

  • Alcohol use. Drinking a lot and drinking often increases your risk. If you drink heavily and smoke, your risk is many times higher.

  • Unhealthy diet. A diet that is low in fruits and vegetables might increase your risk for head and neck cancer.

  • Poor mouth care. Not taking care of your mouth and teeth may increase your risk of head and neck cancer. For instance, dentures that don't fit well can irritate the gums and cheeks, which may increase risk.

  • HPV Infection. Infection with certain types of HPV (human papillomavirus) increases your risk for some kinds of head and neck cancer. Exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus, the virus that causes mononucleosis, can play a role in causing nasopharyngeal cancer.

  • Sun exposure. Unprotected skin on the head and neck and the lips can lead to skin cancer. 

  • Gender. Men are at 2 to 3 times a greater risk than women. But the rate of head and neck cancer in women has been increasing for a few decades.

  • Age. People older than age 40 have an increased risk.

  • Certain exposures at work. People who have been exposed to things like sulfuric acid mist, nickel, wood dust, paint fumes, or asbestos on the job have an increased risk of developing head and neck cancer. Those working around these substances should follow safety and work regulations, such as adequate ventilation in the workplace and using industrial respirators, to avoid breathing in dangerous chemicals.

  • Weakened immune system. People whose immune system is suppressed, such as people who have had organ transplants, are at higher risk for some kinds of head and neck cancer.

  • Inherited syndromes. Certain genetic changes passed in families, for instance, Fanconi anemia, put people at a higher risk for head and neck cancers.

What are your risk factors?

Most risk factors for head and neck cancer are things you can control, especially the two biggest risk factors: tobacco and alcohol use. 

Talk with your healthcare provider about your risk factors for head and neck cancer and what you can do to control them.

Online Medical Reviewer: Gersten, Todd, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Stump-Sutliff, Kim, RN, MSN, AOCNS
Date Last Reviewed: 5/1/2018
© 2013 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.