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More than 85% of head and neck cancers are linked to cigarettes and smokeless tobacco

We’ve all heard about the dangers of smoking and its link with lung cancer. But if you’re a smoker or tobacco user, you’re also putting yourself at a greater risk for head and neck cancers.

What are head and neck cancers?

Head and neck cancer refers to a group of cancers that originate in any of the following areas:

  • Larynx
  • Mouth
  • Nose
  • Pharynx 
  • Salivary glands
  • Sinuses
  • Throat
  • Thyroid

Although not as common as other types of cancers, head and neck cancers account for approximately three percent of all cancers in the U.S. These types of cancers can be brought on by a variety of environmental or lifestyle factors, including smoking. 

“The first thing that comes to mind for many people who smoke is the risk of lung cancer. However, tobacco plays a large role in head and neck cancers, especially oral cancer,” says Dr. Rashmika Potdar, a hematologist-oncologist at Geisinger Medical Center. “Additionally, those who use tobacco and alcohol together are at a greater risk of developing one of those cancers compared to someone who uses tobacco or alcohol alone.”

The role tobacco plays in head and neck cancers

Head and neck cancers are the sixth most common group of cancers worldwide, with 70 to 80% of new head and neck cancer diagnoses linked to tobacco use. The risk for developing head and neck cancers is approximately 10 times higher than it is for those who’ve never smoked. 

It’s important to remember that tobacco use extends beyond cigarettes. Cigars, chewing tobacco, snuff and pipe tobacco are all considered tobacco products, and each contains known cancer-causing compounds. 

“We’re not only seeing cancers related to smoking cigarettes,” explains Dr. Potdar. “Some people tend to view other tobacco substances as being safer, such as snuff, e-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco. E-cigarettes also contain some chemicals that can cause cancer, and because they haven’t been on the market for a great length of time, we are still learning about them.”

Symptoms of head and neck cancers

Head and neck cancers can be a bit more challenging to diagnose than other types of cancer, mainly because symptoms are similar to other issues, such as sinus problems or allergies. Symptoms of head and neck cancer vary but can include:

  • Swelling, or a sore that won’t heal
  • Red or white patches in the mouth
  • A persistent sore throat lasting longer than 6 weeks
  • Change in voice, or sounding hoarse
  • Persistent nasal congestion
  • Frequent nosebleeds
  • Unusual nasal discharge
  • Jaw pain
  • Loosening of teeth
  • Ear pain or frequent ear infections
  • Pain or difficulty swallowing or moving the tongue or jaw
  • Hearing loss

Having any of these symptoms does not automatically mean you have cancer. However, if you experience these symptoms, it is important you speak to your doctor to rule out any health issues.

Reducing your risk of head and neck cancer

Even if you’ve been a long-time smoker, research shows those who quit smoking lower their risk of developing head and neck cancer. In fact, former smokers who remain smoke-free for longer than 20 years reduce their risk to the same level as those who’ve never smoked. 

“Smokers, even those who have smoked for many years, can greatly lessen their risk of oral cancer, throat cancer and others associated with smoking by quitting,” Dr. Potdar says.

If you do smoke, there’s no better time to quit than today. Your doctor can help you find a smoking cessation method that’s right for you. 

If you don’t use tobacco products, there are other things you can do to reduce your risk of developing head or neck cancer. These include:

  • Using sunscreen any time you’re outside
  • Practicing good oral hygiene – get routine dental cleanings, maintain a proper fit of dentures, and floss and brush your teeth regularly
  • Avoiding or reducing alcohol consumption
  • Eating a proper diet
  • Regular exercise
  • Avoiding second-hand smoke

Head and neck cancer care at Geisinger

If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with head or neck cancer, our team of experienced cancer specialists will help treat and manage your cancer. We’ll be here to help you understand your condition and give you the best possible cancer care.

Next steps:

Make an appointment with a hematologist-oncologist
Learn more about cancer care