Risk Factors for Head & Neck Cancer

Woman explaining risk factors for head and neck cancer to another woman.

A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. For example, exposure to sunlight is a risk factor for skin cancer and a high-fat, low-fiber diet is a risk factor for colorectal cancer. Scientists have found several risk factors that make a person more likely to develop head and neck cancer:


Tobacco use has long been recognized as the predominant risk factor for development of cancers in the head and neck, especially the larynx and hypopharynx. Smoking has consistently been reported to confer a dose dependent increase in the risk of developing cancers in this area - the more one smokes; the greater the risk. The risk of developing cancer in this area is five to 35 times more likely in smokers than those who do not smoke, depending on the amount smoked, and it has been estimated that the relative risk of cancer for smokers does not return to the level of nonsmokers until the person is tobacco free for 16 years.

Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol consumption has also been implicated in head and neck cancer, particularly in combination with tobacco use. Alcohol consumption increases one’s chance for laryngeal cancer approximately two to five times that of non-drinkers, and in combination with tobacco use has been shown to have almost a multiplying effect on the risk rather than merely additive. Some reports have suggested up to a 100 fold increase risk.

Nutritional Deficiencies and Immune Suppression

Nutritional deficiencies and immune suppression have also been associated with cancers of the head and neck. Nutritional deficiencies often go hand-in-hand with alcohol use and may be equally responsible for alcohol’s increased risk. Malnutrition as well as dietary deficiencies in some vitamins such as riboflavin, vitamin B derivatives, vitamin A, and retinoids may also play a role.

Gastroesophageal Reflux

Gastroesophageal reflux, which is a disorder that is produced from acid in the stomach being expelled back up the food pipe (or esophagus), often manifests as "heartburn". It has been known that this acid reflux can irritate the lining of the esophagus and has been associated with cancer of the esophagus. Studies have recently shown that this irritation may extend up to the hypopharynx and be a risk for hypopharyngeal and laryngeal cancer.


Additionally, some viruses have also been implicated in the formation of cancers in the head and neck. Specifically, the human papilloma virus (HPV) which commonly causes routine warts of the skin may infect the larynx. Laryngeal papillomas are extremely rare but their presence may confer an increased risk in the long run of developing laryngeal cancer. The Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) has been implicated in some nasopharyngeal cancer.

Other risk factors include exposure to things such as wood dust, paint fumes, metal fragments, radiation, and gasoline, plastics and textile by-products. Asbestos has also been implicated as a risk factor, but not to the degree that it has been associated with lung cancer.

Although these risk factors are well documented, some patients will develop cancer in the head and neck without having any identifiable risk factor. This is particularly true for glandular tumors of the head and neck such as thyroid and salivary gland. Therefore, patients should not ignore Signs and Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer that are suggestive of a problem even when they are not considered at risk.

For more information about the risk factors for head and neck cancer, contact us.

Related Links

Diagnosing Head and Neck Cancer
Treating Head and Neck Cancer