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Risk Factors and causes of head and neck cancers

The causes of head and neck cancers in most people are still unknown, but research is going on all the time to learn more.

There are a number of risk factors that can increase your chance of developing head and neck cancer. These are:

Age and sex

Like most types of cancer, head and neck cancers are more common in older people. They are also more common in men than women.

Smoking and drinking alcohol

Squamous cell carcinomas are much more common in smokers and people who drink a lot of alcohol, particularly spirits, and even more common in people who do both.

Pipe smokers and people who hold cigarettes between their lips for long periods have a higher risk of cancers in the lip area.

Chewing tobacco or paan

People who chew tobacco or betel nuts and those who use paan have a higher risk of cancers in the oral cavity.


People who have long periods of exposure to the sun in their daily life have an increased risk of developing cancers of the lip and the skin of the head and neck area, especially the ear.


A poor diet that contains very little fresh fruit and vegetables may increase your risk of certain types of mouth cancer.

Exposure to chemicals

Breathing in certain chemicals and hardwood dusts (for example, in workplaces) increases the risk of cancers of the nose and sinuses.

Human papilloma virus

In recent years it has been discovered that some head and neck cancers, particularly those of the tonsil and tongue, are linked to infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV). This is often related to oral sex, which transmits the virus.

Pre-cancerous conditions

There are a number of pre-cancerous conditions that can affect the head and neck, such as leukoplakia and erythroplakia which can increase the risk of a cancer developing.

Inherited faulty genes

Most head and neck cancers are not caused by an inherited faulty gene, so members of your family are not likely to be at higher risk of developing head and neck cancer because you have it. If someone with head and neck cancer has a relative who also has cancer, this is more likely to be due to similar lifestyles and habits (such as smoking) than an inherited cancer risk.

How common is the Head and Neck Cancer in India?

Head and Neck cancer is the most common cancer among men from the Indian subcontinent. For women from India, Head and Neck cancer ranks third after Cervical and Breast cancers1.

In India, between the years 2001-2003, across five urban centers - Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bhopal and Bangalore, - and one rural center - Barshi, a total of 10,344 cases of Head and Neck Cancers were registered (23.5% of all cancers) for males across all age groups; while a total of 3,470 cases of Head and Neck Cancers were registered (7.8% of all cancers) for females across all age groups. Considering all men, women and children with all types of cancers together, a grand total of 13,814 cases of Head and Neck Cancers (15.6% of all cancers) were registered at the six centers mentioned above, between the year 2001-20032

The TATA Memorial Hospital (T.M.H.) in Mumbai, India registered a grand-total of 19,127 cases of all types of cancer patients in the year 2006, for men, women and children combined, out of which 4,522 (close to 25% of the total cases) were diagnosed with the Head and Neck cancers. Out of the total 4,522 patients diagnosed with Head and Neck cancers, mentioned above at the T.M.H., 3,572 (79%) were males and 950 (21%) were females3.