Head and neck cancers are malignancies that originate in the head and neck region and have spread to other parts of the body. The mouth, throat, sinuses, and salivary glands are just some of the places in the body where these cancers can develop.
The American Cancer Society estimates that 4 percent of all cancer diagnoses in the country are related to the head and neck.
This article will look at the risk factors for head and neck cancers and offer some advice on how to lower your chances of getting them.
Understanding Cancers of the Head and Neck
Head and neck cancers can develop from a variety of cells, including squamous cells, salivary gland cells, and others.
Head and neck cancers can develop in various parts of the head and neck region, including the mouth, throat, sinuses, and salivary glands. The most common type of head and neck cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, but there are other types as well, including:
- Squamous cell carcinoma: the most common type of head and neck cancer that affects the thin, flat cells lining the inside of the mouth, throat, and nose.
- Lymphoma: a cancer of the lymphatic system that can develop in the head and neck region, particularly in the lymph nodes.
- Thyroid cancer: a cancer that develops in the thyroid gland, which is located in the neck.
- Nasopharyngeal carcinoma: a cancer that develops in the nasopharynx, which is the upper part of the throat behind the nose.
- Oral cavity cancer: a cancer that develops in the tissues of the mouth, including the lips, tongue, gums, and roof and floor of the mouth.
- Oropharyngeal cancer: a cancer that develops in the tissues of the oropharynx, which is the middle part of the throat behind the mouth.
- Laryngeal cancer: a cancer that develops in the tissues of the larynx, or voice box.
Head and neck cancers can be difficult to diagnose because they can mimic symptoms of other conditions such as infections or allergies. The following are common symptoms of head and neck cancer:
- A sore or lump that refuses to heal
- Swallowing pain or difficulty
- Voice change or hoarseness
- A chronic cough or sore throat
- Hearing loss or ear pain
- Nasal bleeds or congestion
- Inflammation of the neck
Head and Neck Cancer Risk Factors
A number of factors can increase your chances of developing head and neck cancer. Among the most common risk factors are:
- Tobacco use: Smoking or using other tobacco products significantly increases the risk of developing head and neck cancer.
- Higher alcohol consumption: Heavy drinking can also raise the risk of head and neck cancer, particularly when combined with tobacco use.
- HPV (human papillomavirus): HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that increases a person’s risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer (cancers of the back of the throat, and the base of the tongue and tonsils).
- Occupational exposure: Workers in certain occupations, such as construction, manufacturing, or textiles may be exposed to substances that increase the risk of head and neck cancer.
- Age and gender: Head and neck cancers are more common in men and people over the age of 50.
- Family history: If you have a family member who has had head or neck cancer, you are more likely to develop it yourself.
If you are concerned about any of these symptoms or about your risk factors for contracting cancer, speak with the experts at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, FL or book in with your primary care specialist as soon as possible.
Lowering Your Chances of Developing Head and Neck Cancer
Some risk factors for head and neck cancers (age and gender, for example) are fixed and cannot be altered, but there are other steps you can take to reduce your risk:
Tobacco use is a major cause of head and neck cancer. Quitting smoking and avoiding other tobacco products can reduce your risk of developing these cancers significantly.
Reduce Your Alcohol Consumption
Heavy alcohol consumption is also associated with an increased risk of head and neck cancer. Therefore, if you choose to drink, do so in moderation.
According to the American Cancer Society, men should limit their alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks per day, and women should limit themselves to no more than one drink per day.
Practice Safe Sex
Oropharyngeal cancers, which affect the tonsils, the floor of the mouth, and the floor of the throat, are linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV); therefore safe sexual practices are important in order to reduce the risk of these developing.
Here are some pointers for having safe sex and lowering your risk of HPV-related head and neck cancer:
- Consistently and correctly use condoms
- Obtain an HPV vaccination
- Get STI screenings on a regular basis
The HPV vaccine can protect against a variety of cancers, including oropharyngeal cancers. From the age of 11 or 12, both boys and girls should receive the vaccine.
Use Sun Protection
Sun protection is an important step in lowering your risk of developing head and neck cancers, particularly lip cancer. Lip cancer is a type of head and neck cancer that develops on the lips and is caused by prolonged sun exposure. Here are some sun-protection recommendations:
- Put on protective clothing
- Apply sunscreen
- Seek out some shade
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat
- Wear sunglasses
- Avoid using tanning beds
Reduce Occupational Hazards
Take precautions if you work in an occupation that exposes you to chemicals or other substances that may increase your risk of developing head and neck cancer.
Put on gloves and a face mask and make sure to follow all the safety rules.
Maintain Good Oral Hygiene
Good oral hygiene is essential in lowering your risk of developing head and neck cancers, particularly oral cancers. Here are some pointers for good oral hygiene:
- Brush your teeth at least twice a day
- Floss on a daily basis
- Make use of mouthwash
- Visit your dentist on a regular basis
Learn About Your Family
If you have a family history of head and neck cancer, you should know that you have an elevated risk of developing the disease yourself. Here are some tips for understanding your family history of head and neck cancers:
- Speak with your family members
- Keep a record of everything
- Inform your healthcare provider about your family history
If you have any symptoms of head and neck cancer, such as a sore or lump that won’t heal, pain or difficulty swallowing, or hoarseness, see your doctor as soon as possible.