Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Read how the Epstein-Barr virus may be a cause of nasopharyngeal cancer.

Nasopharyngeal Cancer Risk Factors

Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV)

The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is a member of the herpes virus family (human herpesvirus 4). EBV is found worldwide and is a common cause of viral pharyngitis, especially in young adults. EBV is transmitted from person to person and then infects human B cells, which in turn spread the infection throughout the entire reticuloendothelial system (RES, or the liver, spleen, and peripheral lymph nodes). About 50% of the population has antibodies to the virus by age 5; about 12% of susceptible adults (college-age) develop antibodies to the virus, and one half of those adults develop the disease termed mononucleosis (also termed infectious mononucleosis, mono, glandular fever, and kissing disease), which produces symptoms of lymph node, spleen, and liver swelling, fever, inflamed throat, malaise, and rash.

Key points

  • Nasopharyngeal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the nasopharynx.
  • Ethnic background and being exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus can affect the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • Signs of nasopharyngeal cancer include trouble breathing, speaking, or hearing.
  • Tests that examine the nose and throat are used to detect (find) and diagnose nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

Nasopharyngeal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the nasopharynx.

The nasopharynx is the upper part of the pharynx (throat) behind the nose. The pharynx is a hollow tube about 5 inches long that starts behind the nose and ends at the top of the trachea (windpipe) and esophagus (the tube that goes from the throat to the stomach). Air and food pass through the pharynx on the way to the trachea or the esophagus. The nostrils lead into the nasopharynx. An opening on each side of the nasopharynx leads into an ear. Nasopharyngeal cancer most commonly starts in the squamous cells that line the nasopharynx.

Nasopharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.

Ethnic background and being exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus can affect the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. Risk factors for nasopharyngeal cancer include the following:

  • Having Chinese or Asian ancestry.
  • Being exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus: The Epstein-Barr virus has been associated with certain cancers, including nasopharyngeal cancer and some lymphomas.
  • Drinking large amounts of alcohol.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/19/2016

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