Head and Neck Cancer - Causes

If known, what was the cause of your head or neck cancer?

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What causes head and neck cancers?

Tobacco (including smokeless tobacco, sometimes called "chewing tobacco" or "snuff") and alcohol use are the most important risk factors for head and neck cancers, particularly those of the oral cavity, oropharynx, hypopharynx, and larynx. Eighty-five percent of head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco use. 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:

  • Oral cavity. Sun exposure (lip); human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is an increasingly frequent cause of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers.
  • Salivary glands. Radiation to the head and neck. This exposure can come from diagnostic X-rays or from radiation therapy for noncancerous conditions or cancer.
  • Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity. Certain industrial exposures, such as wood or nickel dust inhalation. Tobacco and alcohol use may play less of a role in this type of cancer.
  • Nasopharynx. Asian, particularly Chinese, ancestry; Epstein-Barr virus infection; occupational exposure to wood dust; and consumption of certain preservatives or salted foods.
  • Oropharynx. Poor oral hygiene; HPV infection and the use of mouthwash that has a high alcohol content are possible, but not proven, risk factors.
  • Hypopharynx. 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.
  • Larynx. Exposure to airborne particles of asbestos, especially in the workplace.

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. Also, 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, esophagus, and larynx.

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.

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