Causes and prevention of mouth, head and neck cancer

The exact cause of mouth, head and neck cancers is unknown. Research continues to study possible causes. There are things called risk factors that can increase your chance of getting the disease, however. These include:

  • Age: Your risk increases as you get older. Mouth, head and neck cancers are more common in people over 50 years of age.
  • Gender: Mouth, head and neck cancers are more common in men.
  • Smoking: If you smoke pipes, you are more likely to develop cancer of the lip. If you chew tobacco, you have a higher risk of developing oral cancers.
  • Alcohol: If you drink a lot of alcohol, particularly spirits, you are more likely to develop a mouth, head and neck cancer.
  • Sun exposure: If you are exposed to long periods of sunshine, like farmers or gardeners, you are more at risk of developing mouth, head and neck cancers, especially around the ear.
  • Diet: If you eat very little fruit and vegetables, you are more at risk of developing oral cancers.
  • Chemical exposure: If you work with and breathe in certain chemicals or dusts, you may have a higher risk of developing cancer in the nose.
  • Human papilloma virus (HPV): This virus is passed on through sexual contact and can increase your risk of oral or throat cancers.

Remember if a member of your family has a mouth, head and neck cancer it does not mean that you have an increased risk.

For more information on mouth, head and neck cancer, including symptoms and ways to reduce your risk, see our leaflet, Mouth, head and neck cancer –What you should know

Date Last Reviewed: 
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
Date Last Revised: 
Tuesday, May 3, 2016