Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer

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Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention TOPICS

Can laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers be prevented?

Not all laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers can be prevented, but the risk of developing these cancers can be greatly reduced by avoiding certain risk factors such as smoking and alcohol use.

Tobacco use is the most important cause of these cancers. Avoiding exposure to tobacco (by not smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke) lowers the risk of these cancers. Heavy alcohol use is a risk factor on its own. It also greatly increases the cancer-causing effect of tobacco smoke, so it is especially important to avoid the combination of drinking and smoking.

For people who work with chemicals linked to these cancers, having plenty of workplace ventilation and using industrial respirators are important protective measures.

Poor nutrition and vitamin deficiencies have been linked to laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers. Eating a balanced, healthy diet may help lower your risk of these cancers (and many others). The American Cancer Society recommends eating a healthy diet, with an emphasis on plant foods. This includes eating at least 2½ cups of vegetables and fruits every day. Choosing whole-grain breads, pastas, and cereals instead of refined grains, and eating fish, poultry, or beans instead of processed meat and red meat may also help lower your risk of cancer. In general, eating a healthy diet is much better than adding vitamin supplements to an otherwise unhealthy diet. See the American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention for our full guidelines.

Doctors are now studying whether certain drugs or vitamins might help prevent these cancers, especially in people who are at high risk. So far, none have been successful enough to be recommended.

Avoid HPV infection

The risk of HPV infection of the throat is increased in those who have oral sex and multiple sex partners. Smokers are more susceptible to HPV infections, probably because the smoke damages their immune system or the cells that line the throat. These infections are common and rarely cause symptoms. Although HPV infection is linked to some cases of cancer of the larynx or hypopharynx, most people with HPV infections of the throat do not go on to develop this cancer. In addition, most cancers of the larynx and hypopharynx are not related to HPV infection.

In recent years, vaccines that reduce the risk of infection with certain types of HPV have become available. These vaccines were originally meant to lower the risk of cervical cancer, but they have been shown to lower the risk of other cancers linked to HPV as well, such as cancers of the anus, vulva, and vagina. HPV vaccination may also lower the risk of throat cancers, but this has not yet been proven.

Since these vaccines are only effective if given before someone is infected with HPV, they are given at an early age, before a person is likely to become sexually active.

Get more information in our document Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), Cancer, HPV Testing, and HPV Vaccines: Frequently Asked Questions.


Last Medical Review: 04/08/2014
Last Revised: 04/17/2014