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Throat Cancers

Causes of Throat Cancer

As with most cancers, doctors can’t tell you with certainty what causes throat cancer. It’s a combination of genetic factors and factors in your environment.

By far the most common factor contributing to throat cancer is using tobacco, particularly smoking it. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol also contributes to the risk of developing throat cancer.

  • Tobacco: Smoking cigarettes, cigars or pipes and using chewing tobacco greatly increase your chance of getting throat cancer.1 Moore C. Smoking and cancer of the mouth, pharynx, and larynx. JAMA: the journal of the American Medical Association. Jan 25 1965;191(4):283-286.
  • Alcohol: Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol is also very strongly related to getting throat cancer. Moreover, if you both smoke and drink heavily, the risk more than doubles.2 Pelucchi C, Gallus S, Garavello W, Bosetti C, La Vecchia C. Cancer risk associated with alcohol and tobacco use: focus on upper aero-digestive tract and liver. Alcohol research & health: the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 2006;29(3):193-198.

Other factors that can increase your chance of getting throat cancer include:

  • Exposure to radiation in the past: Being exposed to radiation as part of a natural disaster, treatment for another disease a long time ago or even through work can increase the chances of some throat cancers.3 Little MP. Cancer after exposure to radiation in the course of treatment for benign and malignant disease. The lancet oncology. Apr 2001;2(4):212-220.
  • Viruses: The details of this are still being studied. Clearly, though, exposure to certain strains of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is associated with oropharynx cancer, and exposure to Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) is associated with nasopharynx cancer.4 D'Souza G, Kreimer AR, Viscidi R, et al. Case-control study of human papillomavirus and oropharyngeal cancer. The New England journal of medicine. May 10 2007;356(19):1944-1956.
  • Genetic factors: This is important in all cancers, and the details are still being worked out. Genetics clearly plays a major role in nasopharyngeal cancer.5 Hildesheim A, Berrington de Gonzalez A. Etiology and prevention of cervical adenocarcinomas. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Mar 1 2006;98(5):292-293.
  • Certain foods: Deficiencies in some vitamins, poor oral hygiene and even salted fish (for nasopharyngeal cancer) have been associated with certain throat cancers.6 Armstrong RW, Armstrong MJ, Yu MC, Henderson BE. Salted fish and inhalants as risk factors for nasopharyngeal carcinoma in Malaysian Chinese. Cancer research. Jun 1983;43(6):2967-2970.
  • Plummer-Vinson Syndrome (especially for hypopharyngeal and cervical esophageal cancer): This is a condition, more common in women, that is associated with low iron and low blood counts (anemia), along with webs of tissues in the throat that cause difficulty with swallowing.7 Larsson LG, Sandstrom A, Westling P. Relationship of Plummer-Vinson disease to cancer of the upper alimentary tract in Sweden. Cancer research. Nov 1975;35(11 Pt. 2):3308-3316.
  • Asbestos exposure
  • A history of drinking poisons such as lye
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): Though GERD has not been proven to be a cause of throat cancers, multiple studies have shown an association between “acid reflux” and throat cancer.8, El-Serag HB, Hepworth EJ, Lee P, Sonnenberg A. Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a risk factor for laryngeal and pharyngeal cancer. Am J Gastroenterol. Jul 2001;96(7):2013-8.9 Vaezi MF, Qadeer MA, Lopez R, Colabianchi N. Laryngeal cancer and gastroesophageal reflux disease: a case-control study. Am J Med. Sep 2006;119(9):768-76.
References

1 Moore C. Smoking and cancer of the mouth, pharynx, and larynx. JAMA: the journal of the American Medical Association. Jan 25 1965;191(4):283-286.

2 Pelucchi C, Gallus S, Garavello W, Bosetti C, La Vecchia C. Cancer risk associated with alcohol and tobacco use: focus on upper aero-digestive tract and liver. Alcohol research & health: the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 2006;29(3):193-198.

3 Little MP. Cancer after exposure to radiation in the course of treatment for benign and malignant disease. The lancet oncology. Apr 2001;2(4):212-220.

4 D'Souza G, Kreimer AR, Viscidi R, et al. Case-control study of human papillomavirus and oropharyngeal cancer. The New England journal of medicine. May 10 2007;356(19):1944-1956.

5 Hildesheim A, Berrington de Gonzalez A. Etiology and prevention of cervical adenocarcinomas. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Mar 1 2006;98(5):292-293.

6 Armstrong RW, Armstrong MJ, Yu MC, Henderson BE. Salted fish and inhalants as risk factors for nasopharyngeal carcinoma in Malaysian Chinese. Cancer research. Jun 1983;43(6):2967-2970.

7 Larsson LG, Sandstrom A, Westling P. Relationship of Plummer-Vinson disease to cancer of the upper alimentary tract in Sweden. Cancer research. Nov 1975;35(11 Pt. 2):3308-3316.

8 El-Serag HB, Hepworth EJ, Lee P, Sonnenberg A. Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a risk factor for laryngeal and pharyngeal cancer. Am J Gastroenterol. Jul 2001;96(7):2013-8.

9 Vaezi MF, Qadeer MA, Lopez R, Colabianchi N. Laryngeal cancer and gastroesophageal reflux disease: a case-control study. Am J Med. Sep 2006;119(9):768-76.

10 Wei WI, Sham JS. Nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Lancet. Jun 11-17 2005;365(9476):2041-2054.

11 Hoare TJ, Thomson HG, Proops DW. Detection of laryngeal cancer--the case for early specialist assessment. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Jul 1993;86(7):390-392.

12 Referenced with permission from The NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines®) for Head and Neck Cancers V.2.2016. © National Comprehensive Cancer Network, Inc 2016. All rights reserved. Accessed December 7, 2016. To view the most recent and complete version of the guideline, go online to www.nccn.org.