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Risk Factors for Head and Neck Cancer

Head and Neck Cancer is largely a cancer of behavior.  The most important risk factors for head and neck cancers are:

1. HPV Infection

What you should know – Recent studies suggest that HPV may account for much as 70 to 80 percent of head and neck cancers.1 2

2. Alcohol and Tobacco use (including smokeless tobacco, sometimes called “chewing tobacco” or “snuff”)

What you should know – People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk for developing these cancers than people who use either tobacco or alcohol alone.


Other risk factors for cancers of the head and neck include the following:

  • Sun exposure (for skin and lip cancer)
  • Radiation to the head and neck
  • Industrial exposures, such as wood or nickel dust inhalation
  • Asian, particularly Chinese, ancestry (for nasopharyngeal cancer)
  • Epstein-Barr virus infection
  • Consumption of certain preservatives or salted foods
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Use of mouthwash that has a high alcohol content is a possible, but not proven, risk factor
  • Plummer-Vinson (also called Paterson-Kelly) syndrome, a rare disorder that results from iron and other nutritional deficiencies. This syndrome is characterized by severe anemia and leads to difficulty swallowing due to webs of tissue that grow across the upper part of the esophagus.
  • 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 for oral cancer.
  • Consumption of mate, a tea-like beverage habitually consumed by South Americans, has been associated with an increased risk of cancers of the mouth, throat or larynx, and esophagus.

People who are at risk for head and neck cancers should talk with their doctor about ways they can reduce their risk. They should also discuss how often to have checkups.


1The epidemic of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer is here: is it time to change our treatment paradigms?, AU Sturgis EM, Ang KK J Natl Compr Canc Netw. 2011;9(6):665.

2Human papillomavirus and rising oropharyngeal cancer incidence in the United States., Chaturvedi AK, Engels EA, Pfeiffer RM, Hernandez BY, Xiao W, Kim E, Jiang B, Goodman MT, Sibug-Saber M, Cozen W, Liu L, Lynch CF, Wentzensen N, Jordan RC, Altekruse S, Anderson WF, Rosenberg PS, Gillison ML, J Clin Oncol. 2011;29(32):4294.

National Cancer Institute – Head and Neck Cancer: Questions and Answers

More articles about Head and Neck Cancer

For more information:

Go to the Head and Neck Cancer health topic.