What Causes Cancers of the Head and Neck?

Alcohol and tobacco use (including smokeless tobacco, sometimes called “chewing tobacco” or “snuff”) are the two most important risk factors for head and neck cancers, especially cancers of the oral cavity, oropharynx, hypopharynx, and larynx. At least 75 percent of head and neck cancers are caused by tobacco and alcohol use. People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk of developing these cancers than people who use either tobacco or alcohol alone. Tobacco and alcohol use are not risk factors for salivary gland cancers.

Infection with cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus (HPV), especially HPV-16, is a risk factor for some types of head and neck cancers, particularly oropharyngeal cancers that involve the tonsils or the base of the tongue. In the United States, the incidence of oropharyngeal cancers caused by HPV infection is increasing, while the incidence of oropharyngeal cancers related to other causes is falling.

Read here for more information on the increase in oropharyngeal cancer in younger patients due to HPV infection.

Learn more with the HNCA infographic on head and neck cancer risk factors

Other Risk Factors for Cancers of the Head and Neck:

  • Paan (betel quid): Immigrants from Southeast Asia who use paan (betel quid) in the mouth should be aware that this habit has been strongly associated with an increased risk of oral cancer.
  • Maté: Consumption of maté, a tea-like beverage habitually consumed by South Americans, has been associated with an increased risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and larynx.
  • Preserved or salted foods: Consumption of certain preserved or salted foods during childhood is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • Oral health: Poor oral hygiene and missing teeth may be weak risk factors for cancers of the oral cavity. Use of mouthwash that has a high alcohol content is a possible, but not proven, risk factor for cancers of the oral cavity.
  • Occupational exposure: Occupational exposure to wood dust is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer. Certain industrial exposures, including exposures to asbestos and synthetic fibers, have been associated with cancer of the larynx, but the increase in risk remains controversial. People working in certain jobs in the construction, metal, textile, ceramic, logging, and food industries may have an increased risk of cancer of the larynx. Industrial exposure to wood or nickel dust or formaldehyde is a risk factor for cancers of the paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity.
  • Radiation exposure: Radiation to the head and neck, for noncancerous conditions or cancer, is a risk factor for cancer of the salivary glands.
  • Epstein-Barr virus infection: Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer and cancer of the salivary glands.
  • Ancestry: Asian ancestry, particularly Chinese ancestry, is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer.

More on the HPV Connection

Oral Cancer and the Human-Papillomavirus The Oral Sex Cancer Connection

Recent research could explain the increase of oral cancer incidence in young adults, a group traditionally at low risk. This phenomenon has been at least partly attributed to the rise of the human-papillomavirus (HPV), a cancer-causing virus that can be transmitted through oral sex.

Though oral cancers associated with the papillomavirus are still relatively rare, they typically are found near the base of the tonsils and the back of the tongue, areas that are often difficult to see during visual screenings until the cancer is in a late stage.

Read the Good Morning America piece on the HPV-oral cancer link.

Taken from the website of the National Cancer Institute (http://www.cancer.gov)

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