The term “head and neck cancer” refers to various types of cancer affecting several key parts of this general area of the human body, including the mouth, nose and throat. Cancers that emerge here typically begin their development in the cells lining the wet, mucosal exterior inside the head and neck; for example, the salivary glands in the throat and mouth.
Many of the cancers that begin in the head and neck areas are caused by excessive or long-term use of alcohol and tobacco, with some experts suggesting that three in four cancers caused by these two substances alone. However, these are highly complex regions of the body and cancer can result from several sources. Let’s take a quick look at some common causes of head and neck cancer.
1. Alcohol consumption
When we think of health problems caused by excessive alcohol consumption, we tend to think about the liver, the organ responsible for filtering the alcoholic beverages we consume. But excessive alcohol consumption also affects the head and neck, and specifically the mouth, throat, and larynx.
In fact, health experts indicate that people who drink roughly three to four alcoholic beverages each day double or even triple their chances of developing cancer in these key areas of the head and neck. Keep in mind that the chance of developing cancer in these areas is only magnified if the individual is a regular user of tobacco.
2. Tobacco use
Many tobacco users develop breathing problems as time goes on, but it’s not just the lungs that are harmed by regular tobacco consumption. If you smoke tobacco — through cigarettes, cigars, or pipes — you’re also doing serious harm to areas of the head and neck, and particularly the throat and mouth.
Of course, it’s not just smoking tobacco that presents problems. Chewing tobacco is also a huge health issue, as it can lead to the emergence of several types of mouth cancer. Using snuff, meanwhile, can cause cancer to emerge in the areas around the nose, including the sinuses. In short, tobacco use is a huge contributor to the development of head and neck cancers and should be avoided.
The human papillomavirus (HPV), especially HPV type 16, can lead to various types of head and neck cancer once an infection takes place. Of those areas most affected, the tonsils and base of the tongue are most prevalent.
Currently, doctors in the United States are seeing a significant increase in the number of cases involving HPV and oropharyngeal cancers, or cancers affecting the tonsils and tongue. To protect yourself against the human papillomavirus, consider getting the HPV vaccine, which can also protect against relevant dangers affecting the genitals.
Paan, which is also known as betel quid, is very popular in Asia, and particularly India. It is a substance made when combining betel leaf, areca nut and, in some cases, tobacco. When brought together, these substances can be chewed to produce psychoactive effects, including feelings of euphoria.
Unfortunately, paan is highly addictive and comes with a variety of health consequences, the least of which involve the staining of the teeth and gums and excessive saliva production. The more significant health problems associated with paan use include dramatically increased risk of developing cancers in the mouth and throat. Paan should be considered roughly equal to chewing tobacco in terms of its cancer risk.
5. Salted and preserved foods
When we think of the dangers associated with eating a lot of preserved and salty foods, liked canned goods or packaged meat, we tend to focus on how it affects the heart and circulatory system. After all, excessive consumption of sodium, or salt, can lead to clogged arteries, which places extra pressure on the heart and can significantly weaken this key organ over time.
However, salted and preserved foods also present cancer risks in the head and neck regions of the body. In fact, evidence suggests that consuming a lot of preserved or salty foods during the early stages of life can significantly increase one’s chances of developing nasopharyngeal cancer, which starts in the throat and can spread throughout this area of the body in time.
6. Poor oral hygiene
Failing to take oral hygiene seriously can result in a number of health problems, including stained, cracked, and unsightly teeth and bleeding gums. These issues can result in lots of pain and general discomfort in the short term and far more serious problems in the long term, including mouth and throat cancers.
To limit your chances of developing these issues, be sure to brush and floss your teeth every day and visit your dentist at least twice each year. Regular dental check ups can also help your dentist identify and target oral cancers during the early stages of development, thereby increasing chances of recovery.
7. Exposure to airborne substances
Being exposed to dangerous airborne substances, such as asbestos and synthetic fibers, can dramatically increase your chances of developing certain head and neck cancers, including nasopharyngeal cancer, which typically emerges in the throat and spreads from there.
For that reason, people working in industries where exposure to hazardous airborne substances should regularly speak to their doctor about receiving examinations to monitor for the signs of nasopharyngeal cancer. This would include individuals working in the construction, metal, textile, ceramic, logging, and food industries.
As is the case with many health threats, your risk of developing head and neck cancer is partly based on your family history. In other words, if members of your immediate family have been diagnosed with cancers in the mouth, throat, and nose, you will want to have a serious conversation with your doctor about your own risk of developing these cancers.
It should also be noted that people of Chinese ancestry are particularly vulnerable to nasopharyngeal cancer, which tends to emerge in the throat before spreading to other parts of the head and neck.