Risk Factors for Salivary Gland Cancer

A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of getting a disease such as 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.

But having a risk factor, or even many, does not mean that you will get the disease. And many people who get the disease may have few or no known risk factors.

A few risk factors are known to make a person more likely to develop salivary gland cancer, but most salivary gland cancers start without any clear cause.

Older age

The risk of salivary gland cancer goes up as people get older.

Radiation exposure

Radiation treatment to the head and neck area for other medical reasons increases your risk of salivary gland cancer, especially if your salivary glands were not protected during the radiation.

Workplace exposure to certain radioactive substances may also increase the risk of salivary gland cancer.

Smoking

Smoking cigarettes has been linked to a higher risk of Warthin tumor, a benign salivary gland tumor, but not other types of salivary gland cancers.  

Other possible risk factors

Certain workplace exposures

Some studies have suggested that people who work with certain metals (nickel alloy dust) or minerals (silica dust), and people who work in asbestos mining, plumbing, rubber products manufacturing, and some types of woodworking may be at increased risk for salivary gland cancer, but these links are not certain. The rarity of these cancers makes this hard to study.

Viral infections

Some viral infections might be associated with certain salivary gland tumors.

Certain high-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV) has been found in some mucoepidermoid cancers, but more studies are needed to say for sure if there is a link. Vaccines to help prevent HPV infection are available and can help prevent six types of HPV-related cancers.

People with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) are also at risk for salivary gland cancers. This could be because people with HIV have weakened immune systems, but more research is needed.

Lymphoepithelial cancer, a very rare type of salivary gland cancer, is associated with the Epstein-Barr virus.

Diet

Some studies have found that a diet low in vegetables and high in animal fat might increase the risk of salivary gland cancer, but more research is needed to confirm this possible link.

Cell phone use

One study has suggested an increased risk of parotid gland tumors among heavy cell phone users. In this study, most of the tumors seen were benign (not cancer). Other studies looking at this issue have not found such a link. Research is still being done in this area.

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Horn-Ross PL, Morrow M, Ljung BM. Diet and the risk of salivary gland cancer. Am J Epidemiol. 1997;146(2):171-176. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.aje.a009248.

Laurie SA. Salivary gland tumors: Epidemiology, diagnosis, evaluation, and staging. In: Shah S, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, Mass.: UpToDate, 2021. https://www.uptodate.com. Accessed April 22, 2021.

National Cancer Institute. Physician Data Query (PDQ). Salivary Gland Cancer: Treatment. 2019. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/hp/adult/salivary-gland-treatment-pdq on April 22, 2021.

Sadetzki S, Chetrit A, Jarus-Hakak A, et al. Cellular phone use and risk of benign and malignant parotid gland tumors--a nationwide case-control study. Am J Epidemiol. 2008; 167:457-467.

References

Horn-Ross PL, Morrow M, Ljung BM. Diet and the risk of salivary gland cancer. Am J Epidemiol. 1997;146(2):171-176. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.aje.a009248.

Laurie SA. Salivary gland tumors: Epidemiology, diagnosis, evaluation, and staging. In: Shah S, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, Mass.: UpToDate, 2021. https://www.uptodate.com. Accessed April 22, 2021.

National Cancer Institute. Physician Data Query (PDQ). Salivary Gland Cancer: Treatment. 2019. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/hp/adult/salivary-gland-treatment-pdq on April 22, 2021.

Sadetzki S, Chetrit A, Jarus-Hakak A, et al. Cellular phone use and risk of benign and malignant parotid gland tumors--a nationwide case-control study. Am J Epidemiol. 2008; 167:457-467.

Last Revised: March 18, 2022

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