What are the common risk factors for throat cancer?

Almost everyone is at risk for throat cancer, considering the number of environmental pollutants in standard air levels. Many of these pollutants (such as environmental dust, asbestos, arsenic, etc) are potent carcinogens and can contribute towards increasing the risk and susceptibility for throat cancer. In addition to such environmental factors, there are lifestyle habits (such as smoking, chewing tobacco, betel leaves, betel nuts, and consuming alcohol) which can also increase a person’s lifetime risk of developing throat cancer.

Genetic predisposition also plays a huge role in determining an individual’s risk of developing throat cancer over their lifetime. Inherited genetic mutations can lead to cancerous gene damage and consequently, cancer – in people with first-degree blood relatives who have been diagnosed with cancer in the past.

Aside from environmental, lifestyle and genetic factors, possible severe viral infections such as the human papillomavirus (HPV) can also trigger the development of throat cancer. In the USA for example, HPV infections are thought to be responsible for up to 70% of all cases of oropharyngeal cancer. HPV 16 and HPV 18 are most commonly linked to different types of throat cancers.

The most common risk factors associated with throat cancer are listed below:

Asian ancestry

According to population-based cancer registries and available data, genetic ancestry from Southeast Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore), China or India places an individual at a greater risk of developing throat cancer.

A personal history of Plummer-Vinson syndrome

Plummer-Vinson syndrome is a condition that is made up of a combination of the following symptoms:

  • difficulty in swallowing,
  • anemia due to iron-deficiency, and
  • the formation of webs in the food pipe.

It is a very rare syndrome, but patients with this syndrome are at an increased risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma of the pharynx, a form of throat cancer.

HPV exposure

The HPV virus can infect the mouth and throat, and lead to cancers of the oropharynx. HPV exposure is directly linked to almost 70% of all cases of oropharyngeal cancer in the USA.

Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) exposure

EBV is popularly known as the virus that causes infectious mononucleosis (also known as “mono”). Its symptoms include fever, a sore throat, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, and (in some cases), an enlarged spleen. EBV can also lead to the development of certain lymphomas and nasopharyngeal cancer.

Tobacco use

The use of tobacco includes all types of consumption – smoking, snuffing or chewing. Individuals with exposure to second-hand smoke are also at an increased risk for throat cancer. Quitting the habit of smoking or chewing tobacco can significantly reduce an individual’s risk of developing throat cancer.

Alcohol

Alcohol consumption is a major risk factor for throat cancer. According to ASCO’s recommendations issued in 2018, men should limit their alcohol consumption to two drinks a day (60ml) while women should limit their alcohol intake to one drink a day (30ml). It is recommended that alcohol consumption is stopped altogether to reduce the risk of throat cancer.

Chewing betel nuts, leaves and/or gutka

Individuals who are in the habit of chewing betel leaves, betel nuts or gutka (a more common form seen in certain parts of Asia) are at an increased risk of developing throat cancer.

Dietary deficiencies

The ASCO recommendations suggest healthy portions of leafy vegetables and fruits as a part of regular diet. It has been observed that a diet low in fruits and vegetables, or high in processed/salt-cured meats, fish and poultry, can contribute to the development and growth of throat cancer.


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