Throat Cancer Causes & Risk Factors

Throat cancer (including cancers of the larynx and tonsils) can affect anyone. Major risk factors include infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) as well as tobacco and alcohol use.

Learn more about the risk factors for throat cancer.

HPV 16 and HPV 18

While HPV is most commonly associated with cervical cancer, HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer is the fastest-growing head and neck cancer in the United States.

Your risk of developing HPV-positive throat cancer depends in part on the strain of HPV to which you were exposed. For instance, some strains cause warts on the skin, mouth, or genitals but rarely, if ever, cause cancer. Other strains are higher risk and have a greater association with cancer formation. The strains most commonly linked to head and neck cancer are HPV 16 and, less commonly, HPV 18.

Thankfully, for most people, including those with high-risk HPV, the body will get rid of the infection on its own. Unfortunately there is no way to predict who among those with HPV 16 and HPV 18 will go on to develop cancer.

Pictured: Bhuvanesh Singh
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Tobacco

Tobacco use includes both smoking and smokeless tobacco (snuff and chewing tobacco). People who are exposed to secondhand smoke are also at a greater risk for throat cancer.

If you smoke or chew tobacco, you can reduce your risk of throat cancer — and the risk to those around you — by stopping now. If you’ve been diagnosed with throat cancer or are in treatment, it’s not too late to quit.

Learn more about Memorial Sloan Kettering’s tobacco treatment program.

Alcohol

Alcohol consumption is another major risk factor for throat cancer.

Betel Quid and Gutka

People who chew betel quid or gutka, which is more common in parts of Asia, have an increased risk of throat cancer.

Other Throat Cancer Risk Factors

Other factors that may put you at a greater risk for throat cancer include:

  • a diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • a diet high in salt-cured fish and meat
  • a diagnosis of Plummer-Vinson syndrome
  • exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus
  • Asian ancestry
  • drinking yerba mate, a caffeinated drink from South America