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Risk Factors for Head and Neck Cancers

Man with hand on throat

Nov. 9 2020

By Jordan W. Rawl, MD, Lexington ENT & Allergy

Two of the biggest risk factors for developing cancer in the head and neck are drinking alcohol and using tobacco products. These cancers can impact quality of life with pain, disfigurement, and trouble breathing or eating.

Symptoms depend on the cancer location. For example, cancers of the mouth or lips can appear as non-healing ulcers that are painful or bleed easily. Sometimes, they are red or white patches on the tongue, floor of the mouth or inside the cheeks. Additionally, loose teeth that were previously healthy or jaw pain with chewing can be signs of problems, too.

Tumors that form in the back part of the mouth typically cause a chronic sore throat, ear pain or difficulty swallowing.

Cancers involving the nose, sinuses or nasopharynx (the back of the nose) can cause recurrent and significant nosebleeds, nasal obstruction, and even changes in vision, sense of smell and sensation in the cheeks.

Tumors near the larynx (voice box) can cause hoarseness and difficulty swallowing. Cancers in the vocal cords can often be caught early and treated solely with minimal surgery or radiation.

While alcohol and tobacco products play the largest role in increasing risk for head and neck cancer, having the human papilloma virus is a risk factor, too. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease known to cause cervical cancer in women. Statistics show that an increasing number of patients are developing throat cancer from HPV, too.

Consult your doctor if you have symptoms that don’t go away within a few weeks. Treatment may include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation – sometimes a combination for them for more advanced cancers.

Head shot of Dr. Rawl
Jordan W. Rawl, MD, is a head and neck cancer physician at Lexington ENT & Allergy, a Lexington Medical Center physician practice. She has specialized training in the advanced care and treatment of head and neck cancers. Visit

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Disclaimer: This blog is intended for general understanding and education about Lexington Medical Center. Nothing on the blog should be considered or used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Blog visitors with personal health or medical questions should consult their health care provider.