Understanding Risk Factors for Head and Neck Cancers

Head and neck cancers account for  nearly  four percent of all cancers in the United States and are more common among men. They’re also diagnosed more often among people over age 50 than among younger people.  

Understanding the risk factors and knowing which symptoms can be associated with head and neck cancers can be a direct link to early diagnosis and treatment—and a positive outcome for patients.   

“A cancer that gets diagnosed promptly is the key to a successful treatment,” says head and neck surgeon Victoria Banuchi, MD, assistant professor of otolaryngology at Weill Cornell Medical College, Cornell University, and assistant attending otolaryngologist  at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. 

Risk Factors in Head & Neck Cancers

Prolonged exposure to risk factors play a significant role, Dr. Banuchi adds. 

Tobacco [cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, or snuff] and alcohol use puts patients at a very increased risk—they’re up to 40 times more likely to develop a mucosal head and neck cancer that that can affect the tongue, throat, and tonsils,” she explains.  

Sexual behavior also is a key risk factor, Dr. Banuchi adds. 

“Most of us have sex as a risk factor. We’ve been seeing an increase in the oropharyngeal cancers that are linked to the human papilloma virus,” she says. “They may initially cause a mild discomfort in the back of the throat and be slow growing. But if there’s a lump, pain, and persistence, patients should seek medical attention.” 

Cancer of the lip may be caused by prolonged exposure to sunlight and is a major cause of  skin cancer. 

The American Association for Cancer Research cites additional risk factors for head and neck cancers, including eating preserved or salted foods; poor oral hygiene; occupational exposure to wood dust, asbestos, and synthetic fibers; radiation exposure; Epstein-Barr virus infection; and Asian (particularly Chinese) ancestry. 

Asymptomatic head & neck cancers

Some head and neck cancers—thyroid cancer, for example—have no risk factors. (The American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery also points to thyroid cancer as one of the least deadly cancers.) 

“Thyroid cancer is very common and can happen to anyone,” Dr. Banuchi explains. “If caught promptly, these are very responsive to treatment.” 

Although some head and neck cancers can be otherwise asymptomatic, Dr. Banuchi says they often get picked up by yearly physical evaluations, and sometimes patients notice symptoms themselves.  

Dr. Banuchi mentions that patients should see a physician if the following symptoms persist for two weeks and/or don’t respond to treatment: 

  • lumps in the neck (middle of the neck in the case of thyroid cancer) 
  • pain or bleeding in the mouth 
  • unexplained ear pain or trouble hearing 
  • changes in the voice 
  • difficulty swallowing or breathing 
  • unexplained weight loss 
  • fever above 101 degrees 

To diagnose cancers of the head and neck, a physician will take a detailed medical history perform a physical examination. Patients with specific symptoms may undergo follow-up exams and tests, followed by an analysis of a sample of tissue under a microscope to confirm or rule out a cancer diagnosis.