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What are the risk factors?

The main factors that increase the risk of developing head and neck cancer are:

  • smoking tobacco (including cigarettes, cigars and pipes)
  • drinking alcohol
  • infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV).

The combined effect of drinking and smoking is much greater than the risk of only drinking or only smoking. HPV is a very common infection that usually causes no symptoms.

Other risk factors account for only a small proportion of head and neck cancers. These risk factors include:

  • having persistent sores or red or white patches in the mouth
  • chewing tobacco, betel nut, areca nut, paan or gutka
  • breathing in asbestos fibres, wood dust or certain chemicals
  • poor dental health
  • having a weakened immune system
  • having had radiation therapy to the head or neck area in the past
  • having too much sun exposure (for head and neck skin cancer)
  • being overweight or obese
  • having a parent, child or sibling with head and neck cancer (possibly because you have similar lifestyle factors)
  • inheriting a condition linked to head and neck cancer (e.g. Fanconi anaemia, Li-Fraumeni syndrome).

Talk to your doctor if you are worried about any risk factors.

What is human papillomavirus (HPV)?

HPV is the name for a group of viruses that affect the surfaces or lining of different areas of the body, including the throat, cervix and skin. It is the most common sexually transmitted infection in humans. Most people don’t know that they have had an HPV infection.

The subtypes HPV 16 and HPV 18 are linked with throat cancer that starts in the tonsils and tongue base (oropharyngeal cancer). HPV in the head and neck area is usually spread through oral sex.

Most HPV infections are cleared by our immune system. In a small number of people, the virus can lie dormant for many years and then cause cancer. We still  do not understand why this happens. HPV vaccination in adolescence can protect against HPV infection.

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last updated September 2021 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Richard Gallagher, Head and Neck Surgeon, Director of Cancer Services and Head and Neck Cancer Services, St Vincent’s Health Network, NSW; Dr Sophie Beaumont, Head of Dental Oncology, Dental Practitioner, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Bena Brown, Speech Pathologist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, and Senior Research Fellow, Menzies School of Health Research, QLD; Dr Teresa Brown, Assistant Director, Nutrition and Dietetics, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Lisa Castle-Burns, Head and Neck Cancer Specialist Nurse, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, The Canberra Hospital, ACT; A/Prof Ben Chua, Radiation Oncologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, GenesisCare Rockhampton and Brisbane, QLD; Elaine Cook, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Dr Andrew Foreman, Specialist Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Tony Houey, Consumer; Dr Annette Lim, Medical Oncologist and Clinician Researcher – Head and Neck and Non-melanoma Skin Cancer, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and The University of Melbourne, VIC; Paula Macleod, Head, Neck and Thyroid Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Northern Sydney Cancer Centre, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Dr Aoife McGarvey, Physiotherapist and Accredited Lymphoedema Practitioner, Physio Living, Newcastle, NSW; Rick Pointon, Consumer; Teresa Simpson, Senior Clinician, Psycho-Oncology Social Work Service, Cancer Therapy Centre, Liverpool Hospital, NSW.