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What are the risk factors?

Head and neck cancers are associated with a number of major risk factors. Two of the main risk factors are alcohol and tobacco, and the combined effect of drinking and smoking is significantly greater than the risk of just drinking or just smoking. Known risk factors include:

  • drinking alcohol smoking tobacco (including cigarettes, cigars and pipes)
  • chewing or smoking areca nut, betel nut, pan or gutka
  • infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), especially HPV 16, or the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)
  • being overweight or obese
  • older age (being over 40)
  • being male
  • having a first-degree relative (parent, child or sibling) with some types of head and neck cancer
  • being from southern China or South-East Asia (because of cultural practices such as chewing tobacco or eating salty fish)
  • breathing in asbestos fibres, wood dust, dry-cleaning solvents or certain types of paint or chemicals
  • having a weakened immune system
  • sun exposure (for skin cancer of the lip).

Eating adequate amounts of fruit and vegetables may help lower the risk of getting oral and oropharyngeal cancers. Talk to your doctor if you are worried about any of these risk factors.

What is human papillomavirus (HPV)?

HPV is the name for a group of viruses. It is a very common sexually transmitted infection that affects the surface of different areas of the body, including the cervix and skin. Most people will not know they have HPV.

Some types of HPV are linked with the development of cancer. This includes cancers of the mouth and throat (known as oropharyngeal cancers).

HPV in the head and neck area is usually spread through oral sex. HPV often goes away on its own. If it doesn’t go away, it can take many years to develop into cancer. Most people with HPV don’t develop oropharyngeal or other types of cancer.

HPV vaccination can reduce the risk of developing abnormal cell changes that may lead to cancer.

This information is reviewed by

This information was last updated September 2019 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof David Wiesenfeld, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon, Director, Head and Neck Tumour Stream, The Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre at Melbourne Health, VIC; Alan Bradbury, Consumer; Dr Ben Britton, Senior Clinical and Health Psychologist, John Hunter Hospital, NSW; Dr Madhavi Chilkuri, Radiation Oncologist, Townsville Cancer Centre, The Townsville Hospital, QLD; Jedda Clune, Senior Dietitian (Head and Neck Cancer), Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA; Dr Fiona Day, Staff Specialist, Medical Oncology, Calvary Mater Newcastle, and Conjoint Senior Lecturer, The University of Newcastle, NSW; Dr Ben Dixon, ENT, Head and Neck Surgeon, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; Emma Hair, Senior Social Worker, St George Hospital, NSW; Rosemerry Hodgkin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Kara Hutchinson, Head and Neck Cancer Nurse Coordinator, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; A/Prof Julia Maclean, Speech Pathologist, St George Hospital, NSW; Prof Jane Ussher, Chair, Women’s Health Psychology, Translational Health Research Institute (THRI), School of Medicine, Western Sydney University, NSW; Andrea Wong, Physiotherapist, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC..