Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer Overview

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Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention TOPICS

What are the risk factors for laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer?

We don’t know what causes each case of laryngeal or hypopharyngeal cancer. But we do know many of the risk factors for these cancers. A risk factor is anything that affects your chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. Some risk factors, such as smoking, can be controlled. Others, like a person’s age or race, 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 not have had any known risk factors.

Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers are often grouped with other cancers of the mouth and throat as head and neck cancers. These cancers have many of the same risk factors, some of which are listed 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). Smoke from cigarettes, pipes, and cigars all increase the 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.

Drinking alcohol (more than 1 drink a day) also increases the risk of these cancers. People who use both tobacco and alcohol have the highest risk of all. Drinking and smoking doesn’t just add both risks together, it really multiplies them. People who both smoke and drink are many times more likely to get head and neck cancer than are people with neither habit.

Poor diet

Poor eating habits may increase the risk of head and neck cancers. The exact reason for this is not known. Heavy drinkers often have a lack of some vitamins, which may help explain the role of alcohol in increasing the risk of these cancers.


HPV stands for human papilloma virus. Most types of HPV cause warts on the hands, feet, and other places. Some also cause cancers in the sex organs. HPV also seems to be a factor in some cases of throat cancer, such as some cancers of the tonsils and some cancers of the hypopharynx. It is very rarely a factor in laryngeal cancer.

Genetic syndromes

People with syndromes caused by inherited changes (mutations) in certain genes have a very high risk of throat cancer, including cancer of the hypopharynx. For instance, people with inherited blood problems such as Fanconi anemia or dyskeratosis congenita have a very high risk of having cancer of the mouth and throat. To learn more about these syndromes, please see our document, Aplastic Anemia.

Work hazards

Long and intense exposure to wood dust, paint fumes, and to certain chemicals can increase the risk of these cancers. Some studies have also found a possible link between asbestos exposure and laryngeal cancer.


These cancers are about 4 times more common in men than in women. In the past, men were more likely to smoke and drink. But now this is changing, and women’s risks are going up.


Because these cancers take a long time to grow, they are not common in young people. More than half of people with these cancers are older than 65 when the cancers are first found.


These cancers are more common among African Americans and whites than among Asians and Latinos.


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: 01/22/2013
Last Revised: 01/22/2013