A risk factor is a characteristic, behavior, or condition that raises the possibility of developing a disease. The biggest risk factors for head and neck cancer are tobacco and alcohol use, and human papillomavirus (HPV) infections. These substances or viruses produce genetic damage in the squamous cells that form the internal lining of the structures shown on the previous page, and play a significant role in the majority of head and neck cancers. Risk factors for head and neck cancer include:
Tobacco use is the leading cause of head and neck cancer. Cigarettes and smokeless tobacco play a role in over 85% of head and neck cancers.
Frequent or heavy alcohol consumption puts you at risk for head and neck cancer. Use of both alcohol and tobacco increases this risk even further.
Human papillomavirus (HPV)
HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that can affect cells in the throat. This condition puts you at risk for head and neck cancer, particularly cancer of the oropharynx.
Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)
EBV is a lifelong infection that causes mononucleosis (mono) and then remains dormant in the cells of your throat and immune system. This virus infection is associated with the development of cancer of the nasopharynx.
Head and neck cancer is two to three times more common in men than in women.
Deficiencies in vitamins A and B increase the risk of developing head and neck cancer.
Poor oral hygiene
Poor dental hygiene may increase the risk of head and neck cancer.
Gastroesphageal reflux disease (GERD)
Acid reflux or GERD may increase the risk of developing head and neck cancer.
Exposure to certain chemicals and substances, including asbestos, wood dust, and paint fumes, increase a person’s risk of developing head and neck cancer.
The most important measure you can take to prevent head and neck cancer is to completely avoid tobacco products. The risk of developing head and neck cancer drops considerably when you stop smoking or using smokeless tobacco. Your body can even reverse most of the genetic damage caused by these products over time.