Risk Factors for Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancers

A risk factor is anything that increases 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, doesn't mean that you will get the disease. And many people who get the disease have few or no known risk factors.

Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers are often grouped with other cancers of the mouth and throat (commonly called head and neck cancers). These cancers often have many of the same risk factors 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). People who smoke have a much higher risk for these cancers than people who don't smoke. Most people with these cancers have a history of smoking or some other tobacco exposure. The more you smoke, the greater your risk. Smoke from cigarettes, pipes, and cigars all increase your risk 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 people who don't have these habits.

If you are thinking about quitting smoking and need help, call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345. A tobacco cessation and counseling program can help increase your chances of quitting for good. More helpful information on quitting is also in Stay Away from Tobacco.

Human papillomavirus infection

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of over 150 related viruses. They are called papillomaviruses because some of them cause a type of growth called a papilloma, also known as a wart.

Infection with certain types of HPV can also cause some forms of cancer, including cancers of the penis, cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, and throat. Other types of HPV cause benign (not cancer) warts in different parts of the body.

The rate of head and neck cancers related to HPV infection have been rising mainly for cancers of the throat (oropharynx). But HPV infection is a rare risk factor for cancers of the larynx and hypopharynx.

Excess body weight

Weighing too much for your height appears to increase the risk of cancers of the larynx and oropharynx.  Eating more plant-based foods, such as non-starchy vegetables and whole fruit, might help people lose weight as well as reduce their laryngeal and oropharyngeal cancer risk.

Poor nutrition

Poor nutrition might increase the risk of getting hypopharyngeal cancer. The exact reason for this is not clear. Heavy drinkers often have vitamin deficiencies because they don't eat enough, which may help explain the role of alcohol in increasing the risk for these cancers.

Plummer-Vinson syndrome: People with this syndrome typically have poor nutrition because of rings of thin tissue (also called webs) in their esophagus that make it hard to swallow. They commonly have anemia from low iron levels. Having this syndrome puts people at risk of esophageal and hypopharyngeal cancers.

Genetic syndromes

People with syndromes caused by inherited gene defects (mutations) have a very high risk of throat cancer, including cancer of the hypopharynx.

Fanconi anemia: People with this syndrome often have blood problems at an early age, which may lead to leukemia or myelodysplastic syndrome. They also have a very high risk of cancer of the mouth and throat, including laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers.

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 head and neck cancers, especially of the mouth and throat, when they are young.

Workplace exposures

Long and intense exposures to wood dust, paint fumes, and certain chemicals used in the metalworking, petroleum, construction, and textile industries can increase the risk of laryngeal and some 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 suggested a link between asbestos exposure and laryngeal cancer, but not all studies agree.

Gender

Cancers of the larynx and hypopharynx are about 5 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.

Age

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 65 or older when the cancers are first found.

Race

Cancers of the larynx and hypopharynx are more common among African Americans and non-Hispanic whites than among Asian/Pacific Islanders and American Indian/Alaska Natives.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease

When acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus it's called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD can cause heartburn and increase the chance of cancer of the esophagus. GERD is also thought to raise a person’s risk of hypopharyngeal cancers, but more studies are being done on this.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Revised: January 21, 2021

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