A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer. Although risk factors often influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop cancer, while others with no known risk factors do. However, knowing your risk factors and talking about them with a dentist may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices. Below is what you should know about the top 8 risk factors for oral and oropharyngeal cancer. The risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer is greatly increased by 2 factors:


  • Tobacco: Whether you smoke it or chew it, tobacco use increases your risk dramatically. Smoking can cause oral cancer, as well as cancer in other parts of the body. Pipe smoking in particular has been linked to cancer in the part of the lips that touch the pipe stem. Chewing tobacco can lead to many issues in your mouth, the most serious being cancer of the cheeks, gums, and inner surface of the lips where the tobacco has the most contact.
  • Alcohol: Seven out of ten oral cancer patients are heavy drinkers. Heavy drinking is an average of two drinks a day or more for men and an average of more than one drink a day for women. If you are a heavy drinker and a heavy smoker, your chances of developing oral and oropharyngeal cancer increase significantly. Other factors that can raise a person’s risk of developing oral and oropharyngeal cancer include:
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV): Research shows that infection with HPV is a risk factor for oropharyngeal cancer (cancer occurring at the back of the tongue, in or around the tonsils). In fact, HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer in the tonsils and the base of the tongue has become more common in recent years. Sexual activity with someone who has HPV, including oral sex, is the most common way someone gets HPV. There are vaccines available to protect you from HPV infection. Receiving an HPV vaccination before exposure to HPV can reduce the risk of oropharyngeal cancer.
  • Gender: Men are twice more likely to develop oral and oropharyngeal cancer than women. This is attributed to higher rates of alcohol and tobacco use by men.
  • Age: People older than 45 years have an increased risk for oral cancer, although this type of cancer can develop in people of any age.
  • Poor Oral HygienePeople with poor oral hygiene or dental care may have an increased risk of oral cancer. Poor dental health or ongoing irritation from poorly fitting dentures, especially in people who use alcohol and tobacco products, may contribute to an increased risk of oral cancer.Regular examinations by a dentist or dental hygienist can help detect oral cancer at an early stage.
  • Poor Diet/Nutrition: A diet low in fruits and vegetables and a vitamin A deficiency may increase the risk of oral cancer.
  • Weakened immune system: People with a weakened immune system may have a higher risk of developing oral and oropharyngeal cancer.


Some of these risk factors for oral and oropharyngeal cancer can be avoided by making healthy lifestyle choices. Stopping the use of all tobacco products is the most important thing a person can do to reduce the risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer, even for people who have been using tobacco for many years. Talk with a dentist if you have concerns about your personal risk of developing oral and oropharyngeal cancer.