What are the risk factors for head and neck cancer?


A risk factor is any factor that is associated with increasing someone’s chances of developing a certain condition, such as cancer. Some risk factors are modifiable, such as lifestyle or environmental risk factors. Others cannot be modified, such as inherited factors or whether someone in the family had had cancer.

Having one or more risk factors does not mean that you will develop cancer. Many people have at least one risk factor but will never develop cancer, while others with cancer may have had no known risk factors. Even if a person with cancer has a risk factor, it is usually hard to know how much that risk factor contributed to the development of their disease.

Different types of head and neck cancer have different risk factors. Factors that are associated with a higher risk of developing head and neck cancer are:

  • smoking or chewing tobacco – however, this is not a risk factor for salivary gland cancer
  • drinking alcohol – however, this is not a risk factor for salivary gland cancer
  • being over 40 years of age
  • being infected with some types of human papillomavirus (subtypes HPV16 and HPV18), especially for cancers involving the tonsils and the base of the tongue
  • being infected with Epstein–Barr virus (the virus that causes glandular fever), for nasopharyngeal cancer
  • having sores or red or white patches in the mouth that won’t go away, for oral cancer
  • having poor nutrition, for oral and pharyngeal cancers
  • being overweight or obese, for oropharyngeal and laryngeal cancers
  • being exposed to certain types of dust (including wood dust and asbestos fibres) and workplace chemicals, for laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers, and cancer of the paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity
  • being exposed to radiation (including radiation therapy) in the head and neck, for salivary gland cancer having poor oral hygiene, for oral cancers
  • consuming certain preserved or salted foods during childhood, for nasopharyngeal cancer
  • having too much sun exposure, for cancer of the lip
  • chewing betel quid, areca nuts, paan or gutka, for oral cancers
  • racial background – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more likely to develop head and neck cancers than other Australians. People of Asian background are at higher risk for nasopharyngeal cancer, whereas people of non-Asian background are at higher risk for cancer of the larynx and hypopharynx
  • having certain genetic conditions, including Fanconi anaemia, Li-Fraumeni syndrome and dyskeratosis congenita, for oral, pharyngeal and laryngeal cancers.
  • having a weakened immune system.

If you are concerned about your risk of head and neck cancer, please see your doctor.

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