Head and Neck Cancer Causes & Risk Factors

Tobacco use and heavy alcohol use are the main risk factors for head and neck cancer. Tobacco use includes cigarettes, cigars, pipes and smokeless tobacco. If you use tobacco and have two alcoholic drinks a day, your risk of head and neck cancer is 20 times greater than if you did not. Doctors believe alcohol and tobacco act together to damage tissues in the head and neck.

Head and neck cancers are three times more common in men than in women because men tend to use tobacco and alcohol more heavily. However, as women smoke and drink more, their rates of head and neck cancer are rising. Other cause and risk factors for head and neck cancer include:

  • Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) - This common virus is spread by sexual contact
  • Spending a lot of time outdoors - This raises the risk of skin cancers on the head and neck, including melanoma
  • Being exposed to radiation from X-rays, CT scans or radiation therapy of the head or neck
  • Being exposed to wood dust, asbestos, dry cleaning chemicals or other substances at work or over a long time
  • Having acid reflux (heartburn) or a related condition called Barrett’s esophagus
  • Having certain diseases, such as aplastic anemia, Fanconi anemia, Li-Fraumeni syndrome and some other conditions

Learn more about treatment options for head and neck cancers