Patient Education

Head & Neck Cancer Risk Factors

A risk factor is anything that may increase your chances of having a disease. The two greatest risk factors for head and neck cancer include tobacco and alcohol abuse. 

Risk factors for head and neck cancer include:

Tobacco use: 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 (i.e. chewing tobacco) greatly increases your risk for oral cancer. The risk is directly related to how many cigarettes, cigars, or pipes you consume and 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. 

HPV Infection: Infection with certain types of HPV (human papillomavirus) increases your risk for some kinds of head and neck cancer. In recent years, HPV infection has become the leading cause of new head and neck cancer, even among those patients who have never smoked. Fortunately, these cancers have a better outcome than cancers caused by tobacco abuse, but early detection is critical. 

Alcohol use: Alcohol abuse can increase your risk of head and neck cancer. If you drink heavily and you also smoke, your risk of head and neck cancer is greater than smoking or drinking alone.

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. Regular dental care with a dental health care provider is an important way to prevent oral cancer and for early detection. 

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.

EBV: Exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus, the virus that causes mononucleosis, can play a role in causing some nasopharyngeal cancers.

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

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

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