Alcohol and Tobacco Use Linked to 75 Percent of Head and Neck Cancers

Discovery of lumps in head, neck region should always be evaluated

DAYTON, Ohio (April 8, 2019) – Cancers that develop in the head and neck region can have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life from swallowing, speaking and taste to social interaction.

Head and neck cancers account for about 4 percent of all cancers in the United States and are categorized by the region in which they are found. These types of cancers are often called squamous cell carcinomas and line the moist, mucosal surfaces inside areas such as the mouth, nose and throat, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). 

Common regions affected by head and neck cancers involve the oral cavity, which includes areas such as the lip and gums; the pharynx, which is the hollow tube that starts behind the nose and leads to the esophagus; the larynx, which includes the vocal cords; paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity; and the salivary glands, which rest in the floor of the mouth and produce the saliva.

Symptoms of head and neck cancer depend on where the disease originates, said Sameep Kadakia, MD, a head and neck cancer and reconstructive surgeon with Premier ENT Associates.

“People who have cancer that begins in their nose or sinuses initially may not feel anything,” said Dr. Kadakia, who practices with Premier Physician Network. “However as the tumors become larger, they may complain of nose bleeds, nasal congestion or nasal drainage. Others may have decreased vision or headaches.”

Tumors of the mouth, he added, may create symptoms such as pain while chewing, difficulty swallowing, and weight loss. Individuals may also complain of lumps and bumps in the neck area that weren’t there a few months earlier. 

There are ways that a person can reduce their risk for developing head and neck cancers or be proactive in catching the disease at an early stage.

Lifestyle changes – It is estimated that 75 percent of head and neck cancers are caused by tobacco and alcohol use. Individuals who use both tobacco and alcohol are at a greater risk of developing these cancers than people who use either one alone, the NCI said. Talk to your doctor about finding help to cease use of tobacco and alcohol, and whether you should undergo regular screening.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) – Infection with cancer-causing types of HPV, especially HPV type 16, is a risk factor for some type of head and neck cancers. Particularly, HPV has been linked to oropharyngeal cancers that involve the tonsils or base of the tongue. Research is still needed to determine the relationship the HPV vaccine has to head and neck cancer prevention. Still, it is important to understand how to reduce your risk for HPV infection and if you should be regularly screened after being diagnosed with the virus.

Maintain regular checkups – Head and neck cancers can be detected early through physical exams that often take place during regular checkups. Keep annual wellness checkups with your health care provider and  maintain good oral hygiene including annual visits to the dentist. 

Know your overall risk – There are other factors that can place a person at a higher risk for these type of cancers. Among those include the consumption of certain preserved or salted foods during childhood; exposure to wood dust, asbestos and synthetic fibers through certain occupational environments; previous radiation to the head and neck; and a previous infection of the Epstein-Barr virus.

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