Risk Factors for Head & Neck Cancer

The first thing to know is that the big risk factors are tobacco and alcohol. That’s what causes these cancers. People wouldn’t have it most of the time unless they had those risk factors. Tobacco use in combination with excess alcohol is a 20- to 30-fold increase over the general population.

D. Randall Pinkston, MD; Chief – Section of Head & Neck Surgical Oncology

A risk factor is something about you that increases your chance of getting a disease or having a certain health condition. Some risk factors for head and neck cancer you cannot change, but some you can. Changing the risk factors that you have control over will help you live a longer, healthier life.

Risk factors do not mean that you will get the disease. Many people who have these risk factors do not develop the disease and many who develop the disease did not have any of these risk factors.

The risk factors for head and neck cancer are:

  • Smoking – People who smoke are at much greater risk of developing head and neck cancers than people who don’t.
  • Smokeless tobacco – People who use smokeless tobacco are at much greater risk of developing head and neck cancers than people who don’t.
  • Excessive alcohol use – Men who drink more than two glasses of alcohol a day or women who drink more than one glass of alcohol a day are at much greater risk of developing head and neck cancers than people who don’t.
  • GERDPeople whose gastroesophageal disease is untreated or undertreated have an increased risk of developing head and neck cancers.
  • Chronic periodontal diseasePeople who have neglected their dental care or have tooth rot have an increased risk of developing head and neck cancers.
  • Passive (secondhand) smoke – People who are exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke are at an increased risk of developing head and neck cancers.

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