Risk factors

Reduce your risk

Head and neck cancer incidences are expected to increase by 30% over the next 10 years. Head and Neck cancers do not discriminate; anyone can get the disease so it is important everyone does everything they can to reduce their risk.

There are 2 substances that greatly increase the risk of developing a Head and Neck cancer, namely alcohol and tobacco (smoking and chewing). Using alcohol and tobacco together increases this risk even more.

The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) which is the leading cause of cervical cancer is also a leading cause of throat cancer (within the oropharynx).  It is estimated that up to 70% of all Head and Neck cancers are classed as "Human Papillomavirus positive" (HPV+).  In the UK today there are more cases of HPV linked throat cancers than there are HPV linked cervical cancers and they are the fastest growing segment of Head and Neck cancers. HPV+ cancers generally affect the tonsils, base of tongue and throat. We are now starting to see younger patients (40-60s) presenting with HPV driven cancers as well as people in their 60-70 s. There is a free vaccination programme available to 12 to 13 year olds to reduce future occurrences of cancers associated with HPV.

Another common viral infection that can in some in some rare cases cause a type of throat cancer is the Epstein–Barr virus (EBV).  The Epstein-Barr virus can increase the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer.  Most people carry EBV and it does them no harm.

It does not usually cause any problems. But, in some rare cases and for certain population groups, an EBV infection can cause genetic changes in cells that make them more likely to become cancerous in the future. In the UK, 80 out of 100 cases of nasopharyngeal cancer (80%) are caused by EBV. But many people will be infected with EBV and not develop cancer. This virus is linked to other cancers including Hodgkin lymphoma.

The table below highlights, in order of risk, the main risks of developing Head and Neck Cancers;