What are the risk factors for laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers?
A risk factor is anything that affects your chance of getting a disease like cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. Some risk factors, like smoking, can be changed. Others, like a person’s age or family history, can’t be changed.
But risk factors don’t tell us everything. Having a risk factor, or even several risk factors, does not mean that you will get the disease. And many people who get the disease may have few or no known risk factors.
Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers are often grouped with other cancers of the mouth and throat (known as head and neck cancers). These cancers often have many of the same risk factors, some of which are included below.
Tobacco and alcohol use
Tobacco use is the most important risk factor for head and neck cancers (including cancers of the larynx and hypopharynx). The risk for these cancers is much higher in smokers than in nonsmokers. Most people with these cancers have a history of smoking or other tobacco exposure. The more you smoke, the greater the risk. Smoke from cigarettes, pipes, and cigars all increase your chance of getting these cancers.
Some studies have also found that long-term exposure to secondhand smoke might increase the risk of these cancers, but more research is needed to confirm this.
Moderate or heavy alcohol use (more than 1 drink a day) also increases the risk of these cancers, although not as much as smoking.
People who use both tobacco and alcohol have the highest risk of all. Combining these 2 habits doesn’t just add both risks together, it actually multiplies them. People who smoke and drink are many times more likely to get head and neck cancer than are people with neither habit.
Poor nutrition may increase the risk of getting head and neck cancer. The exact reason for this is not known. Heavy drinkers often have vitamin deficiencies, which may help explain the role of alcohol in increasing risk of these cancers.
Human papilloma virus infection
Human papilloma virus (HPV) is a group of over 100 related viruses. They are called papilloma viruses because some of them cause a type of growth called a papilloma, more commonly known as a wart. Some types of HPV can cause cancers of the cervix, vagina, anus, vulva, or penis. HPV also seems to be a factor in some throat cancers, such as some cancers of the tonsils and some cancers of the hypopharynx. HPV infection is very rarely a factor in laryngeal cancer.
People with syndromes caused by inherited defects (mutations) in certain genes have a very high risk of throat cancer, including cancer of the hypopharynx.
Fanconi anemia: This condition can be caused by inherited defects in several genes. People with this syndrome often have blood problems at an early age, which may lead to leukemia or aplastic anemia. They also have a very high risk of cancer of the mouth and throat.
Dyskeratosis congenita: This genetic syndrome can cause aplastic anemia, skin rashes, and abnormal fingernails and toenails. People with this syndrome have a very high risk of developing cancer of the mouth and throat when they are young.
More information about Fanconi anemia and dyskeratosis congenita can be found in our document, Aplastic Anemia.
Long and intense exposures to wood dust, paint fumes, and certain chemicals used in the metalworking, petroleum, plastics, and textile industries can also increase the risk of laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers.
Asbestos is a mineral fiber that was often used as an insulating material in many products in the past. Exposure to asbestos is an important risk factor for lung cancer and mesothelioma (cancer that starts in the lining of the chest or abdomen). Some studies have also found a possible link between asbestos exposure and laryngeal cancer.
Cancers of the larynx and hypopharynx are about 4 times more common in men than women. This is likely because the main risk factors − smoking and heavy alcohol use − are more common in men. But in recent years, as these habits have become more common among women, their risks for these cancers have increased as well.
Cancers of the larynx and hypopharynx usually develop over many years, so they are not common in young people. Over half of patients with these cancers are older than 65 when the cancers are first found.
Cancers of the larynx and hypopharynx are more common among African Americans and whites than among Asians and Latinos.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease
When acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus it is called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD can cause heartburn and increase the chance of cancer of the esophagus. Studies are being done to see if it increases the risk of laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers.
Last Medical Review: 12/14/2012
Last Revised: 02/03/2014