Risk Factors

Anything that increases your risk of getting a cancer of the head and neck is called a risk factor. Having any of these risk factors does not automatically mean that you will get head and neck cancer; however, it does put you at a higher risk of developing it compared to other people of your age.

The following are considered risk factors for head and neck cancer:

  • Smoking & chewing tobacco or betel quid (‘paan’) – tobacco consumption is considered the biggest risk factor for the head and neck cancer.
  • Alcohol consumption – frequent alcohol use over a long period of time increases the risk of cancer in the pharynx and larynx. The combination of smoking and alcohol escalates this risk.
  • Gender – men are more likely to be affected than women. It is not clear if this is only because smoking and alcohol consumption tend to be more common among men.
  • Age – People over 50 years are more likely to be affected. However, younger people can be affected as well.
  • Viral infection – Viruses such Human Papilloma virus & Ebstein Barr Virus increase the risk of the head and neck cancer. Human Papilloma virus (HPV) is commonly associated with high risk of cancers involving the oral cavity and oropharynx (area behind the mouth). It is spread through sexual contact. HPV infects epithelial cells. Once HPV enters these cells, the virus begins to make the proteins it encodes. Two of the proteins made by high-risk HPVs (E6 and E7) disrupt normal functions of cells. When these infected cells become large in numbers, it becomes difficult to be destroyed by the immune system. Therefore, persistently infected cells continue to grow and may develop mutations in cellular genes which lead to more abnormal cell growth, and ultimately, to the formation of a cancerous tumor. Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus is also a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer and cancer of the salivary glands.
  • Occupational Exposure: Being exposed to wood dust is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer. Industrial exposures, such as asbestos and synthetic fibers, have been associated with cancer of the larynx. Working in jobs such as construction, metal, textile, ceramic, logging, and food industries may have an increased risk of cancer of the larynx. Exposure to wood or nickel dust orformaldehyde is a risk factor for cancers of the paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity.
  • Other factors:
    – Poor oral hygiene: poor dental hygiene or missing teeth can be a risk factor.
    – Poor nutrition: Consumption of certain preserved or salted foods during childhood is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer. Diets low in essential vitamins such as Vitamin B can increase the risk.
    – Prolonged sunlight exposure: too much exposure to UV (Ultra-violet light) from the Sun or Sunbeds can increase the risk of developing head and neck cancer, particularly skin cancer of the head and neck.
    – Weak immune system: having a weak immune system can interfere with the body’s capacity to fight against cancer. Immunodeficiency disorders can make a person more susceptible to head and neck cancer. However, preexisting conditions such as diabetes, malnutrition, and particular medications can lead to a weak immune system as well.