While throat cancer is a relatively uncommon condition (0.7% of all cancers) that can affect different areas of the throat, it’s still very important to be aware of throat cancer’s symptoms and causes. An estimated 12,380 cases of laryngeal cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2023, of which most cases will be in those over the age of 55. Unfortunately, there is no specific screening test for throat cancers, and it’s very difficult to detect on your own at home. A trained medical professional must diagnose by performing a thorough examination including a laryngoscopy procedure and a biopsy if abnormalities are found. In this 2023-updated overview guide on what causes throat cancer, we’ll look at the latest research to understand what factors may increase risks for developing throat cancer, and what proactive steps one can take to prevent it.

A Brief Look at The Types of Throat Cancer

Throat cancer is a term used to describe any cancer that develops in the throat, whether that be in the larynx (voice box), pharynx (throat), or the tonsils. There are a few key things here to know about what terms are used to describe a throat cancer diagnosis, including the regional naming of the cancer and the type.

The location of the cancer will determine what it is called; for example, if diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer, this is cancer found behind the nose and above the back of the throat, whereas, oropharyngeal cancer affects the back of the throat, base of the tongue, tonsils, and soft palate, while hypopharyngeal cancer affects the lower part of the throat below and behind the voice box.

There are also different types of throat cancers with the most common being squamous cell carcinoma, which originate from the cells that line the throat. Other types include adenocarcinoma, which arises from the glandular cells of the throat, and sarcoma, which develops from the muscle fibers of the neck. But what causes these throat cancers to develop? Read on to learn about the major risk factors involved.

What Causes Throat Cancer: 4 Major Risk Factors That Contribute to Its Development

While we would love to be able to answer, “what causes throat cancer” with a concise explanation, there simply isn’t one even in 2023. However, what we do know is that there are several major risk factors involved that contribute to its development; human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, tobacco and alcohol use, and the use of betel quid or gutka in the Asian population.

1. Tobacco Use. When thinking about what causes throat cancer, tobacco use is at the top of the list. Every time you breathe in tobacco smoke, the chemicals within the product enter your bloodstream and are carried throughout the body. Tobacco smoke contains at least 70 chemicals that can damage the DNA of the cells and make them grow abnormally. Smokeless tobacco products, such as dipping and chewing tobacco, can also cause cancer of the esophagus, gums, tongue, mouth, throat, and pancreas. Quitting tobacco can reduce the risk of throat cancer by 60% to 70% after 10 to 15 years.

2. Alcohol Consumption. Drinking alcohol can damage the cells that line the throat and can make it more vulnerable to mutations caused by other carcinogens, such as tobacco or human papillomavirus (HPV). The risk of throat cancer increases with the amount and duration of alcohol intake, as well as the type of alcohol consumed. For example, hard liquor may have a stronger effect than beer or wine. However, there is no safe level of alcohol consumption when it comes to throat cancer prevention.

3. Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Infection. The Human Papillomavirus is a diverse group of small non-enveloped tumor viruses that can infect the skin and mucous membranes of humans and animals. There are more than 100 types of HPV, and about 40 of them can affect the mouth, throat, and genitals. While HPV is most commonly associated with cervical cancers, which can be detected early and treated, HPV-16 strains (less commonly HPV-18 strains) can infect the mouth and throat via oral sex and can lead to cancer of the oropharynx (back of throat, base of tongue and tonsils). According to the Cleveland Clinic, only 1% of adults end up with HPV-16 oral-related infections, and two-third of all throat cancers contain this strain. So for most individuals this means that the body successfully gets rid of the infection and no cancer develops.

4. Chewing Betel Quid and Gutka. Betel quid and gutka are two forms of smokeless tobacco products that are widely consumed in some parts of Asia. With betel quid, this is made from betel leaves, areca nuts, spices, slaked lime, and other ingredients. When tobacco is added into this mixture, it’s called gutka, which is made from crushed areca nuts, catechu, paraffin wax, slaked lime, and sweet or savory flavorings.

According to several studies [1, 2, 3], chewing betel quid or gutka can increase the risk of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers, which affect the mouth and the throat. These cancers are caused by the harmful chemicals and carcinogens present in these products, which damage the cells and DNA of the oral mucosa. Some of the symptoms of these cancers include mouth ulcers, difficulty swallowing, bleeding, pain, and weight loss. Early detection and treatment are important to improve the chances of survival and reduce the complications of these cancers.

While these 4 things are major risk factors with regards to what causes throat cancer, there are a few other factors contributing to cancer development. Acid reflux, a diet that is low in fruits and vegetables, a diet high in salt-cured fish and meat, Epstein-Barr virus infection, and Plummer-Vinson Syndrome are all risk factors of throat cancer.

Quick & Easy Steps to Preventing the Causes Behind Throat Cancer

For those concerned with the causes of throat cancer, there are a few measures one can take to prevent its development. Namely, avoid tobacco and alcohol consumption, as these are two of the most significant risk factors in throat cancer development. Additionally, practicing good oral hygiene, maintaining a healthy diet, and limiting exposure to and vaccinating against HPV can all help reduce the risk of throat cancer. If you’re worried about head and neck cancers and would like to learn more about them or think you’re having symptoms of throat cancer, then book an appointment with an otolaryngologist today, as regular check-ups are the key to early detection, which improves your chances of successful treatment. Contact Floto Group today to learn more about how we can help you prioritize your health.