Causes of Throat Cancer

What are the causes of throat cancer in the larynx and pharynx?

Although all the causes of throat cancer are unknown, doctors and scientists have identified many risk factors and potential causes. Individuals with certain risk factors have shown to be more likely to develop throat cancer than individuals without the risk factors. Throat cancer is seen about twice as often in men than in women and most cases are seen in people over the age of 65. African American and Asian men and women are at the highest risk, but it is still relatively common in the white population as well.

What are some of these common risk factors or causes of throat cancer in the Larynx?

  • Tobacco Use– The majority of diagnosed throat cancers are caused by tobacco use, which includes smokeless tobacco (chew, dip, snuff, betel quid), cigarettes, cigars and pipes. Depending on the amount of tobacco used, plus other factors, a tobacco user can be as much as 20-40 times more likely to develop throat cancer than a non user. Quitting tobacco reduces your risk, but never gives you the same low risk as non-users.
  • Excessive use of Alcohol– Depending on the amount used, heavy drinkers are estimated to be 2-10 times more likely to develop throat cancer than non-drinkers. Some scientists believe that alcohol actually makes the tissue in the throat more prone to damage from tobacco, increasing ones risk for throat cancer when both alcohol and tobacco are used.
  • Occupational exposure to asbestos and synthetic fibers– Studies have show these to be possible causes of throat cancer in the larynx, but more research is needed
  • Long-term exposure to second hand smoke– This has been shown in some studies to increase one’s risk of throat cancer, but more research is needed.
  • Gender, age, race, ethnicity, genetics, a weakened immune system and poor nutrition are also believed to be causes of throat cancer in the larynx.

What are some of these common risk factors or causes of throat cancer in the Pharynx?

  • The use of all forms of tobacco and the excessive use of alcohol are the most common cause of throat cancer in the pharynx (and all other types of oral and throat cancer).
  • Epstein-Barr virus infection (EPV)– The link between EPV and throat cancer is not completely known, but almost all people with nasopharyngeal cancer have traces of infection by this virus in their blood and evidence of it in their cancer cells.
  • Occupational exposure to formaldehyde or wood dust– These have shown to be possible causes of throat cancer in some studies but more research is needed.
  • Consumption of certain preserved or salted foods (especially in Asia)– The rate of throat cancer in Asian countries is higher than in the US and is believed to be the result of diets high in salt cured fish and meats.
  • Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)– The number of throat cancer diagnoses believed to be caused by HPV has been on the rise in recent years. HPV related cancers are most common in the tonsils or back of tongue. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that affects skin cells. The disease affects 80-85% of sexually active people, but only a small percent of those infected will develop throat cancer as a result of the virus.
  • Gender, age, race, ethnicity, genetics and family history are also believed to be causes of throat cancer in the pharynx.

Where can I go for more information on the causes of throat cancer?

We suggest visiting our Throat Cancer Resource page for links to other sites with research and studies on throat cancer.

Also, our other pages on throat cancer can help give you a better understanding of all aspects of the disease and also have links to other sites.

References

Head and Neck Cancers. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Sites-Types/head-and-neck. Accessed January 9, 2012

Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/LaryngealandHypopharyngealCancer/DetailedGuide/index. Accessed January 19, 2012.

Nasopharyngeal Cancer. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/NasopharyngealCancer/DetailedGuide/index. Accessed January 19, 2012.

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