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Oral Cancer: Risk Factors

What is a risk factor?

A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of having a disease. Risk factors for a certain type of cancer might include smoking, diet, family history, or many other things. The exact cause of someone’s cancer may not be known. But risk factors can make it more likely for a person to have cancer.

Things you should know about risk factors for cancer:

  • Risk factors can increase a person's risk, but they do not necessarily cause the disease.

  • Some people with 1 or more risk factors never develop cancer. Other people can develop cancer and have no risk factors.

  • Some risk factors are very well known. But there is ongoing research about risk factors for many types of cancer.

Some risk factors, such as family history, may not be in your control. But others may be things you can change. Knowing the risk factors can help you make choices that might lower your risk. For example, if an unhealthy diet is a risk factor, you may choose to eat healthy foods. If excess weight is a risk factor, your healthcare provider may check your weight or help you lose weight.

Who is at risk for oral cancer?

Oral cancer is twice as common in men than in women.You’re also more at risk for oral cancer if you have any of the below: 

  • A history of tobacco use. All forms of tobacco products increase your risk for oral cancer. This includes cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, and snuff. The younger you are when you start using tobacco and the longer you've used it, the greater your risk.Most people with oral cancer smoke cigarettes. People who use snuff have a much higher risk of cancer in the lips, cheeks, and gums. Pipe smokers are at increased risk for lip cancers in areas where the pipe stem rests. Precancer of the mouth is also linked to tobacco use.Leukoplakia is a whitish patch in the mouth or throat that can turn into cancer. Erythroplakia is a red, raised patch in the mouth that can turn into cancer.

  • Heavy alcohol use. Drinking 2 or more alcoholic drinks a day increases your risk of oral cancer. If you drink a lot of alcohol and use tobacco products, you have an even greater risk of getting oral cancer.

  • A lot of sun exposure. Extensive exposure to the sun increases your risk of lip cancer.

  • HPV infection. Human papillomaviruses (HPV) cause warts on various parts of the body. A few HPV types are linked to some oral cancers. HPV virus is found in about 2/3 of oropharyngeal cancer.

  • Lack of fruits and vegetables in your diet. Research has suggested that not eating enough fruits and vegetables can increase the risk for oral and oropharyngeal cancers.

  • Chronic mouth irritation. Poorly-fitted dentures or other problems that cause chronic irritation to the lining of the mouth may increase the risk for oral cancer.

  • Betel nut use. Chewing betel nut increases the risk of oral cancer. Betel nut use is most common in Asia, but can occur in the U.S. The risk is even higher if you also drink alcohol. 

  • Fanconi anemia or dyskeratosis congenital. People with either of these inherited conditions have a high risk of oral or throat cancer. These conditions are caused by inherited defects in certain gene.

What are your risk factors?

Talk with your healthcare provider about your risk factors for oral cancer and what you can do about them. If you use tobacco, one of the most important things you can do is quit.

Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Online Medical Reviewer: Stump-Sutliff, Kim, RN, MSN, AOCNS
Date Last Reviewed: 11/5/2015
© 2013 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.
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