Risk Factors for Head and Neck Cancers

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), head and neck cancers account for approximately 3 percent to 5 percent of all cancers in the United States. Head, neck, and thyroid cancers are more common in men and in people over age 50.

Tobacco, including smokeless tobacco (also called "chewing tobacco" or "snuff"), and alcohol use are the primary risk factors for head, neck, and thyroid cancers, particularly cancers of the oral cavity. According to the NCI, approximately 85 percent of head, neck, and thyroid cancers are linked to tobacco use. People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk for developing these cancers than people who use either tobacco or alcohol alone.

Other risk factors for cancers of the head and neck include, by location of cancer:

  • Oral cavity: Sun exposure (lip); possibly human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.

  • Salivary glands: Radiation to the head and neck. This exposure can come from diagnostic X-rays or from radiation therapy for cancerous or noncancerous conditions.

  • Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity: Certain industrial exposures, such as wood or nickel dust inhalation. Tobacco and alcohol use may play less of a role in this type of cancer.

  • Nasopharynx: Asian, particularly Chinese, ancestry, Epstein-Barr infection, occupational exposure to wood dust, and consumption of certain preservatives or salted foods.

  • Oropharynx: Poor oral hygiene. HPV infection and the use of mouthwash that has a high alcohol content are possible, but not proven, risk factors.

  • Hypopharynx: Plummer-Vinson (Paterson-Kelly) syndrome, a rare disorder that results from iron and other nutritional deficiencies. This syndrome is characterized by severe anemia and leads to difficulty swallowing due to webs of tissue that grow across the upper part of the esophagus.

  • Larynx: Exposure to airborne particles of asbestos, especially in the workplace.

Immigrants from Southeast Asia who use paan (betel quid) in their mouth should note that this habit has been strongly associated with an increased risk for oral cancer. Also, consumption of mate, a tea-like beverage habitually consumed by South Americans, has been associated with an increased risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, thyroid, and larynx.

We can help

U.S. News & World Report ranks The Mount Sinai Health System in New York City among the top 20 hospitals in the United States for the treatment of ear, nose, and throat disease, including cancer. Please call the Mount Sinai Head and Neck Cancer Center at 212-241-9410 to schedule an appointment.


Contact Us

Ear, Nose and Throat/Head and Neck Services
5 East 98th Street
New York, NY 10029
Tel: 212-241-9410