Causes of oral and oropharyngeal cancer

About 10,750 Americans are expected to die from oral and oropharyngeal (mouth and throat) cancer this year. And approximately 53,000 people will be diagnosed with these cancers.(1) These statistics are made even more tragic by the fact that mouth and throat cancers have several known high-risk factors — making them largely preventable. Knowing these risk factors is key to avoiding or spotting these cancers early.

Where oropharyngeal (throat) cancer occurs: 

  • Back one-third of the tongue
  • Soft palate (back part of the roof of the mouth)
  • Tonsils
  • Back and sides of throat

Where oral (mouth) cancer occurs:

  • Lips
  • Front two-thirds of the tongue
  • Under the tongue
  • Cheeks
  • Gums
  • Tissue covering the hard palate (the bony roof of the mouth)

The risk factors of mouth and throat cancer you can't control:

While you can’t control them, it’s important to be aware of these risk factors:

  • Aging increases your risk of oral cancer, especially after age 50.
  • Gender influences risk, as men are diagnosed twice as often as women. This is likely due to higher tobacco and alcohol usage.(2)
  • A previous bout with mouth or throat cancer can make you susceptible to a recurrence, most often within two years after original treatment.
  • A family history of mouth, throat or other cancers increases risk. So let your dentist know if you or a family member have a history of cancer.
  • A weakened immune system from diseases at birth, AIDS, medicines used after organ transplants and more make it harder to fight off cancer.

The risk factors of mouth and throat cancer you can control:

However, some risk factors are linked to behavior that can be controlled:

  • All tobacco use can lead to mouth and throat cancer.
  • Drinking more than four alcoholic drinks per day increases risk,(3) in part because your body breaks down alcohol into harmful chemicals that can damage your DNA. Your body is prevented from repairing that damage, which lets some cells grow out of control.
  • Using both tobacco and alcohol increases your risk even more,(4) perhaps because alcohol aids tobacco in having an effect on cells and causing cancer.
  • A lack of fruits and vegetables in your diet can lead to a deficiency of vitamins and antioxidants that protect against cancer.
  • Excessive exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or artificial sunlight like tanning beds, increases the risk of lip and oral cavity cancer.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the leading cause of cancers of the tonsils and base of the tongue.(5) These cancers have multiplied in the past decade.(6)

How to reduce your risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer:

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help reduce the risk of developing mouth and throat cancers:

  • Quit using all forms of tobacco. If you don’t use, don’t start.
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation (up to two drinks per day for men of all ages and one drink per day for women).
  • Protect your lips from the sun by shading your face with a hat and wearing at least SPF 30 lip balm.
  • Avoid tanning beds.
  • See your dentist regularly — your exam should include an oral cancer check. Early diagnosis and treatment is a major factor in successful treatment.
  • Perform self-checks monthly by looking for sores, irritations, red or white patches and lumps that last more than two weeks.
  • Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
  • Help avoid HPV by talking to your physician about when you or your children should be vaccinated.