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Moffitt doctor checking patient's throat

Head and neck cancer is an umbrella term for several types of squamous cell carcinoma that develop in the moist cells that line the mouth, throat (pharynx) and voice box (larynx). Less commonly, head and neck cancer may also form in the sinuses or salivary glands.

What causes head and neck cancer?

In general, head and neck cancer arises when squamous cells in the surface (epithelium) of a mucous membrane undergo abnormal DNA changes. As a result, the cells begin to grow and divide uncontrollably. In most cases, the DNA changes are triggered by prolonged exposure to certain carcinogens. Most notably, researchers have confirmed that tobacco use and alcohol consumption are strong—and entirely controllable—factors that contribute to the development of head and neck cancer.

Most people correctly associate smoking—and more specifically, the toxins in the smoke generated by cigarettes, cigars and pipes—with lung cancer. However, many people are unaware that the high nicotine content in all forms of tobacco—including chewable products—is a leading cause of head and neck cancer.

Scientists believe that nicotine irritates the epithelium and causes the squamous cells to mutate. The cellular mutations change the way the cells grow, causing them to reproduce at a much faster rate than normal. The rapidly growing cells then amass and form a tumor that continues to grow as more cells accumulate. Because carcinogens such as nicotine can damage the epithelium and mucosa, the toxins may enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body, resulting in cancer spread (metastasis).

Head and neck cancer risk factors

Tobacco use and alcohol consumption are confirmed to be major risk factors for head and neck cancer. This applies to all smoked and smokeless tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, snuff and betel quid, and all types of alcoholic beverages, including beer, wine and liquor.

Other risk factors for head and neck cancer include:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) – Approximately 70% of head and neck cancers that develop in the tonsils, soft palate or base of the tongue are linked to HPV, a common sexually transmitted infection (STI).
  • Ultraviolet (UV) light – Exposure to harmful UV rays generated by the sun and artificial sources, such as tanning beds, is a major cause of lip cancer.
  • Occupational carcinogens – Individuals who work in the construction, textile, ceramic, logging or food processing industry may be exposed to harmful substances such as wood dust, formaldehyde, asbestos, nickel and other chemicals, which can increase the risk of nasopharynx cancer.
  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) – A known cause of infectious mononucleosis, EBV can also elevate the risk of head and neck cancer in the nose and salivary glands.
  • Radiation therapy – Prior radiation treatment delivered to the head or neck is associated with a heightened risk of head and neck cancer.
  • An unhealthy diet – Excessive consumption of preserved or highly salted foods, especially during childhood, and consumption of maté, a tea-like beverage customarily consumed in South America, have been linked to head and neck cancer.
  • Poor personal hygiene – Insufficient oral healthcare and missing teeth may contribute to the development of head and neck cancer.

Head and neck cancer prevention

As of yet, no head and neck cancer screening method has proven to be reliable enough to justify its routine use in the general public. Even so, head and neck cancer can often be diagnosed early and treated successfully. For instance, many cases are detected by a dentist during a semiannual dental checkup.

In addition to seeing a dentist regularly, other preventive steps include making positive lifestyle choices, such as:

  • Quitting smoking, if applicable, and avoiding all other forms of tobacco use
  • Drinking alcoholic beverages in moderation, if at all
  • Applying sunscreen and wearing protective clothing outdoors to limit exposure to the sun’s damaging UV rays
  • Wearing a protective face mask whenever there is a possibility of exposure to harmful fumes, particles or other carcinogens
  • Practicing good oral hygiene
  • Consuming a healthy diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables and limits salty and preserved foods

It is also important to promptly discuss unusual symptoms—such as a lump or swelling in the neck, a persistent sore throat, a mouth sore that does not heal or frequent nosebleeds—with a physician.

Frequently asked questions about head and neck cancer causes and risk factors

The following FAQs-related article provides additional information about the causes of head and neck cancer:

Benefit from world-class care at Moffitt Cancer Center

Moffitt is firmly positioned at the forefront of head and neck cancer research. Through ongoing studies, our scientists continue to learn more about how these cancers develop and how they can be prevented and treated. Our progress has gained national recognition, and we have earned the distinction of being named a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute.

If your physician has determined that you have an elevated risk of developing head and neck cancer, you are welcome to turn to the world-renowned experts in Moffitt’s Head and Neck Cancer Program. To request an appointment, call 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online. We do not require referrals.