Head and Neck Cancer: Important Risk Factors to Know

The good news: You may have control over many of these risk factors.

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While many people express fear at developing cancer, many people do not realize that their everyday lifestyle choices may help lower the chances of that happening. Knowing the habits that can increase your risk of cancer can empower you to take care of yourself for years to come. This is especially true for head and neck cancers.

Head and neck cancer is a category of cancers that can affect the mouth, nose, throat, and face. (Learn more about types of head and neck cancers here.) Many of the primary risk factors for head and neck cancer are lifestyle-related, meaning most individuals have a real opportunity to manage their risk.

Alcohol and Tobacco Use

The primary risk factors for head and neck cancer are alcohol consumption and tobacco use (including traditional cigarettes, chewing tobacco, hookah pipes, and e-cigarettes). In fact, at least 75 percent of these cancers are linked to alcohol and tobacco use, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“Abuse of alcohol and tobacco certainly increases the risk for developing the cancer,” says Mark Persky, MD, otolaryngologist and surgeon at NYU Langone Health in New York City. “If you do one or the other, either could potentially cause cancer, but if the smoking and drinking are combined, then indeed the chances of developing cancer is much increased.”

HPV Infection

An infection of the human papillomavirus (HPV) can increase your risk of several types of cancer, including head and neck cancer. HPV comes in many strains, and HPV type 16 is linked to a higher risk of head and neck cancer—especially oropharyngeal cancers of the tonsils or base of the tongue. This has become more common in the past decade, according to Dr. Persky.

“Now we have younger patients being involved with no history of smoking or drinking developing significant lymph node involvement in the neck from these HPV-associated tumors,” says Dr. Persky.

You can lower your risk of an HPV infection by getting the HPV vaccine (if you’re eligible), using condoms during sex, and getting regular pap tests and HPV tests to stay informed about your health.

Other Risk Factors

A number of other less common risk factors may influence the development of head and neck cancer, such as:

  • A diet high in preserved or salted foods may increase the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer.

  • Poor oral hygiene may slightly increase the risk of oral cavity cancer.

  • Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus (the virus that causes “mono”) increases the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer and salivary gland cancer.

  • Certain occupational exposures may increase someone’s risk, such as exposure to wood dust, asbestos, synthetic fibers, nickel dust, or formaldehyde. People working in construction, metal, ceramic, logging, food, or textile industries have been found to have a higher rate of laryngeal cancer.

  • Radiation exposure to the head and neck may increase the risk of salivary gland cancer.

  • Chewing paan, or betel quid, significantly increases the risk of oral cancer. Betel quid is a leaf used as a wrapping for the areca nut or tobacco that is chewed for ceremonial purposes in parts of Southeast Asia.

  • Chinese ancestry is associated with nasopharyngeal cancer, partially due to the popular consumption of salted fish and preserved eggs, veggies, and roots in traditional Chinese cuisine. Furthermore, the Epstein-Barr virus is also common among this population.

Since many of these risk factors can be prevented or controlled, it’s important to talk to a doctor if you have any of these risk factors. Your doctor may be able to help you manage your risk of head and neck cancer, which will likely have an effect on your overall health as well.