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Risk factors for head and neck cancer: Many of us think that oral cancers do not develop in healthy persons – especially those who are not habituated, smokers and drinkers. But this is not true always because there are certain risk factors that may increase the risk of oral cancer even in relatively healthy-looking individuals. Therefore, a better understanding of all the risk factors is quite indispensable as oral cancers are extremely malignant and even the slightest delay can lead to cancer spreading to lymph nodes (metastatic) making the prognosis worse.

Age – Age is a risk factor as the risk increases after age 40. Individuals over 40 years are at increased risk of head and neck cancer.

Race – Asian people and black African and Americans are at increased risk of oral cancer compared to whites. Indians are prone to oral cancer owing to their tobacco usage and smoking habits.

HPV Virus – Human papillomavirus (HPV) is now considered a high-risk factor for head and neck cancer in individuals who are involved in high-risk sexual activity – especially unprotected oral sex. Though there are several strains of HPV, only some are associated with certain types of oral cancers. Though vaccines are available, the protection they offer is inconclusive.

Epstein-Barr virus is involved in the development of nasopharyngeal cancer. The virus is also a primary cause of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Burkitt’s lymphoma and infectious mononucleosis. Nasopharyngeal cancer is prevalent in a developing country like India.

Poor nutrition – Proper nutrition and a good nutritious diet play an important role in one’s health. Inadequate diet and poor nutrition can raise an individual’s risk of developing illnesses and cancer is one of them. The risk increases if the person is malnourished with other risk factors like a family history of head and neck cancer.

Tobacco Use: Nearly about 85% of the cases of head and neck cancer are linked to tobacco use. It is considered one of the prominent risk factors for head and neck cancer. Smoking increases the risk manifolds. Secondhand smoke or passive smoking also increases the risk of head and neck cancer.

Alcohol Abuse: Drinking alcohol on a frequent basis and regularly and heavy consumption of alcohol increases the risk of laryngeal, pharyngeal, mouth and oesophagal cancers. The risk increases tremendously in individuals who use tobacco and alcohol together.

Poor dental and Oral Hygiene – Those who have frequent dental problems are at risk of oral cancer as research indicates that poor oral hygiene and dental care can increase the risk of head and neck cancer.

Occupational or environmental inhalants – people who work in industries that release fumes with chemicals or individuals who inhale wood dust, paint fumes, asbestos and other chemicals owing to their working environment are at increased risk of developing head and neck cancer.

Gender – The other risk factors include a weakened immune system and gender. Men are at increased risk of developing head and neck cancer compared to women. However, for the past few decades, the rate of head and neck cancers in women is also on the rise.

Bottom Line

Maintaining good oral and dental hygiene by visiting a dentist regularly; visiting an ENT specialist and head and neck surgeon upon noticing any abnormality like ulcer or sores in the mouth can help in the early detection of oral cancer and prompt treatment.