Is It Possible to Lower Your Risk of Head and Neck Cancer?

About 75 percent of these cancers are linked to alcohol and tobacco use.

Loading the player...

Some risk factors for developing cancer, such as family history, may be out of your control. But depending on the type of cancer, there may also be preventative measures that can help you lower your chances. This is especially true for head and neck cancer.

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 you have more control than you think in lowering your risk. Here’s how:

Limit alcohol and avoid tobacco use.

“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. In fact, at least 75 percent of these cancers are linked to alcohol and tobacco use, according to the National Cancer Institute.

What’s more: “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,” says Dr. Persky.

Dr. Persky recommends limiting alcohol (no more than one drink a day for women and two for men) and avoiding tobacco entirely, which includes traditional cigarettes, chewing tobacco, hookah pipes, and e-cigarettes. (Here are some strategies that may help you kick the smoking habit.)

Know your HPV status—and get vaccinated (if you’re eligible).

Over the past decade, certain types of head and neck cancer among younger people—with no history of smoking or drinking—have been on the rise, says Dr. Perksy. This group is specifically affected by oropharynx cancers, which have been linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV). “You're talking about something that is epidemic proportions that is hitting younger people,” he says.

An infection of HPV can increase your risk of several types of cancer, including head and neck cancer. HPV comes in many strains, and HPV types 16 and 18 are linked to a higher risk of head and neck cancer.

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.

“HPV vaccines … should be promoted by primary care physicians for children, before they develop any sort of sexual contact, to protect them from infection and subsequent cancers that develop secondary to the HPV infection,” says Dr. Persky. “I think that's a national initiative that should be certainly stressed.”

It’s important for you and your doctor to be aware of all the risk factors for head and neck cancer—whether you have control over them or not. Your doctor can then help you manage your risk of head and neck cancer.