A risk factor is any factor that is associated with increasing someone’s chances of developing a certain condition, such as cancer. Some risk factors are modifiable, such as lifestyle or environmental risk factors, and others cannot be modified, such as inherited factors or someone in the family having had cancer.
Having one or more risk factors does not mean that you will develop cancer. Many people have at least one risk factor but will never develop cancer, while others with cancer may have had no known risk factors. Even if a person with cancer has a risk factor, it is usually hard to know how much that risk factor contributed to the development of their disease.
Factors that are associated with a higher risk of developing head and neck cancer are:
- smoking or chewing tobacco– however, this is not a risk factor for salivary gland cancer
- alcohol use– however, this is not a risk factor for salivary gland cancer
- poor nutrition
- infection with some types of human papillomavirus, especially for cancers involving the tonsils, the base of the tongue, the paranasal sinuses and the nasal cavity
- infection with Epstein–Barr virus (the virus that causes glandular fever), for nasopharyngeal cancer and salivary gland cancer
- exposure to certain types of dust (including wood dust) and workplace chemicals, for nasopharyngeal cancer, and cancer of the paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity
- chewing of betel nuts, for oral and oropharyngeal cancers
- poor oral hygiene, for oral cancers
- consumption of certain preserved or salted foods during childhood, for nasopharyngeal cancer
- exposure of the head and neck to radiation, for salivary gland cancer
- racial background – people of Asian background are at higher risk for nasopharyngeal cancer,whereas non-Asians are at higher risk than Asians for cancer of the larynx and hypopharynx
- certain genetic conditions, including Fanconi anaemia and dyskeratosis congenita, for cancer of the mouth and throat
- age – some head and neck cancers are more common in older people
- a weakened immune system.
Find out more about:
- Lifestyle and risk reduction
- Position Statement on Lifestyle risk factors and the primary prevention of cancer
- National Cancer Institute (2013). Head and neck cancers.
- National Cancer Institute (2014). Salivary gland cancer treatment (PDQ®), patient version.
- American Cancer Society (2015). Salivary gland cancer.
- American Cancer Society (2015). Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer.
- American Cancer Society (2015). Nasopharyngeal cancer.
- American Cancer Society (2015). Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer.
- American Cancer Society (2015). Oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer.
- National Cancer Institute (2015). Oropharyngeal cancer treatment (PDQ®), patient version.
- National Cancer Institute (2015). Paranasal sinus and nasal cavity cancer treatment (PDQ®), patient version.
- National Cancer Institute (2014). Nasopharyngeal cancer treatment (PDQ®), patient version.