A cigarette being snapped in half

What Are the Main Risk Factors for Head & Neck Cancers?

People who smoke or chew tobacco, and/or drink heavily have the highest risk of developing cancers of the head and neck. If you use tobacco and drink alcohol, your risk is even greater.

Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted disease, has been linked to about 70% of all head and neck cancers. We don’t know yet whether HPV causes head and neck cancer on its own or whether it begins when someone who has HPV also smokes or drinks heavily.

How can I reduce my risk for head & neck cancer?

Don’t use tobacco

Tobacco and your Health info sheet
Learn more about the harmful effects of tobacco.

If you’re a smoker, the New York State Smokers’ Quitline, based at Roswell Park, can give you the help you need to quit. It’s a free, confidential service that provides effective stop-smoking assistance to all New York State residents.

The Smokers' Quitline provides:

  • A starter kit of free nicotine-replacement medications for eligible smokers.
  • Coaching and nicotine-replacement treatment coverage for at least two quit-smoking attempts per year.
  • A personalized click-to-quit service that sends regular quit messages to your phone or email.
  • Telephone coaching in English or Spanish, plus translation services for other languages through Language Line Services.

If you already have cancer, quitting now can improve your chances for effective treatment. Find out about Roswell Park’s Tobacco Cessation Treatment Services.

Limit your alcohol intake

Alcohol use is associated with a higher risk of developing cancers of the head and neck, esophagus, liver, breast, colon and rectum. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) warns that those who continue to drink after a cancer diagnosis increase the risk that the cancer will return after treatment or that new types of cancer will develop.

ASCO says cancer risk is highest among heavy and moderate drinkers, with moderate drinking defined as one drink per day for women or up to two drinks per day for men.

Learn about the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine

Depending on your age and whether or not you are already sexually active, the HPV vaccine can protect you against nine types of HPV, including those that cause most cancers of the cervix, anus, vulva/vagina, penis and throat.

Screening for head & neck cancer

Routine screening is available for only one type of head and neck cancer — oral cancer. Ask your dentist or dental hygienist for oral cancer screening during your regular dental exam.

Patients who have suspicious oral lesions may be seen in Roswell Park’s Dental and Head & Neck clinics. For more information about Roswell Park’s oral cancer screening program, call 716-845-5972.

Symptoms of head & neck cancers