Understanding the Risk Factors Associated with Throat Cancer

Dr Gunes Dr Hossami

Dr. Adem Günes & Dr. Abdulla El-Hossami

Understanding the Risk Factors Associated with Throat Cancer

Cancer is responsible for nearly 10 million deaths each year and according to the World Health Organization, the economic cost of the disease is more than $1.16 trillion per annum.

Continuous research over the years has allowed us to develop cutting edge treatments but also identify the main risk factors identified with certain kinds of cancer.

Throat cancer is the growth of tumours in areas of the body such as the pharynx, larynx and tonsils. Initial symptoms can include a persistent cough, difficulty swallowing and a sore throat as well as unexpected weight loss.

  • According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 12,000 people each year are diagnosed with throat cancer and nearly 4,000 deaths occur from the disease.
  • This disease generally occurs in later life, typically over 65, and men are twice or three times as likely to develop it compared to women.

Throat cancer, including cancer of the larynx and tonsils, can affect anyone, but there are certain clearly defined risk factors associated with it.

Risk factors are lifestyle choices such as smoking or biological traits like family genetics or gender that increase the likelihood of developing a certain disease.

Taking note of these risk factors and doing something about them where possible can reduce the chance of developing a disease such as this.

Human papillomavirus or HPV is more commonly associated with cervical cancer, but there is also a link with throat cancer. The most common strain that has a link to pharyngeal cancer, which affects the middle part of the throat, is HPV 18.

As with many other cancers, smoking and tobacco are a primary risk factor. It’s not just smoking that has the potential to lead to the development of throat cancer but practices like taking snuff and chewing tobacco. Long term exposure to second-hand smoke could also influence the development of throat cancer.

In addition to tobacco, another big risk factor for developing throat cancer is drinking alcohol. People who both drink and smoke, therefore, are at a proportionally higher risk than someone who only smokes or only drinks.

Risk factors associated with throat cancer include gender. Men are much more likely to develop the disease than women but this could be down to lifestyle factors rather than anything to do with the difference in genders. For example, men are much more likely to drink and smoke excessively than women.

We all know that an unhealthy diet is not very good for us. In the case of throat cancer, people who have diets that don’t include fruits and vegetables are more at risk of developing the disease than those who eat a balanced and nutritious diet.

Again, the reason for this is not entirely clear. People who drink and smoke often have poor diets as well and this could affect their overall susceptibility to cancers. On the other hand, the nutrients and antioxidants in fruits and vegetable could in some way protect individuals from developing a wide range of cancers.

A couple of rare genetic syndromes have been associated with throat cancer:

Dyskeratosis congenita: This is a syndrome that causes the blood disorder aplastic anemia, but may also increase the risk of throat cancer.
Fanconi anemia: This can affect individuals at an early age and contribute to cancers such as leukemia. It also increases the risk of cancer of the throat and mouth.


Asbestos was used for many years in buildings around the world before its detrimental impact on the lungs and potential for causing cancer was discovered. While the link to lung cancer and mesothelioma is fairly well documented, there is less certainty that it causes throat cancer – some studies show a relationship, others don’t.

Betel quid and gutka are a mix of tobacco, spices and crushed betel nut that are used for chewing and are more popular in areas like Asia. As with tobacco use, there is a link between long-term use of these products and the development of throat cancer.

Many of the risk factors associated with throat cancer are concerned with lifestyles such as smoking and drinking and diet. Cutting your intake of alcohol and quitting smoking can significantly improve your all-around health but will also reduce your risk of developing diseases such as this in the first place.

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