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Head and Neck Cancer Causes, Risk Factors and Prevention

What Causes Head and Neck Cancer?

While there are several factors that could cause this type of cancer, as much as 85% of head and neck cancer cases are linked to tobacco use. The most important thing you can do for your health is to stop using tobacco. Your body can reverse most of the genetic damage caused by tobacco once you stop using it.

Head and Neck Cancer Risk Factors

A risk factor is an element of your life that can increase your risk of developing a disease. Although having a risk factor won’t always lead to cancer, it’s important to take steps within your control to reduce your risk.

If you have risk factors for cancer, Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center can help. We’re here to support you at any stage of your health care journey.

Risk factors for head and neck cancer include:

  • Tobacco use: Smoking cigarettes, cigars, pipes and e-cigarettes/vaping or chewing tobacco and snuff
  • Alcohol consumption: Drinking alcohol, especially when combined with smoking or other tobacco use
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infections: HPV16 and HPV 18 are the most common strains linked with head and neck cancer and is the main cause for oropharyngeal cancer 
  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV): Causes mononucleosis (mono) and stays dormant in the cells of your throat and immune system
  • Gender: Men are two to three times more likely than women to get head and neck cancer
  • Diet and nutrition: Poor nutrition and vitamin deficiencies
  • Oral hygiene: Poor oral/dental hygiene
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or acid reflux: Reflux of stomach acid into the upper airway and throat
  • Environment: Sun exposure and exposure to certain chemicals and substances, including asbestos, wood dust and paint fumes
  • History of radiation therapy: Radiation therapy to the head and neck
  • Drug use: Marijuana
  • Overall health: Weakened immune system

How to Prevent Head and Neck Cancer

Although there is no proven way to prevent head and neck cancer, you may be able to lower your risk. Talk to your doctor or schedule an appointment with Banner MD Anderson’s caring team of experts for more information about your personal risk and cancer prevention.

To reduce your risk for head and neck cancer:

  • Stop smoking and using tobacco. Banner MD Anderson has tobacco cessation programs to help.
  • Limit alcohol. Not consuming alcohol is best for cancer prevention. If you choose to drink, men should have no more than two drinks per day, and women should have no more than one drink per day.
  • Protect yourself against HPV. Practice safe sex, such as starting sexual activities at a later age and limiting sexual partners, and get the HPV vaccine.
  • Protect yourself from the sun. Stay shaded as much as possible between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., wear a hat and sunglasses and use at least SPF 30 sunscreen.
  • Wear protective gear if exposed to chemicals, fumes and dust.
  • Get regular dental checkups.

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