Salivary gland

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Risk factors for salivary gland cancer

A risk factor is something that increases the risk of developing cancer. It could be a behaviour, substance or condition. Most cancers are the result of many risk factors. But sometimes salivary gland cancer develops in people who don’t have any of the risk factors described below.

Salivary gland cancer can occur at almost any age, but most people who develop salivary gland cancer are over 50. Slightly more men than women develop salivary gland cancer. There is a high rate of salivary gland cancer in Canadian Inuit.

The following are risk factors for salivary gland cancer. Most of the risk factors are not modifiable. This means that you can’t avoid them. Until we learn more about these risk factors, there are no specific ways you can reduce your risk.

Risk factors are generally listed in order from most to least important. But in most cases, it is impossible to rank them with absolute certainty.

Known risk factors

There is convincing evidence that exposure to radiation increases your risk for salivary gland cancer. The risk is related to how much radiation someone is exposed to. People who had radiation therapy to the head or neck and atomic bomb survivors have the highest risk.

People who had many full-mouth dental x-rays also have a high risk for salivary gland cancer. This is especially true for people who had these x-rays before the 1960s when the doses of radiation were much higher.

There is also an increased risk for salivary gland cancer in people who were treated with radioactive iodine-131 for thyroid cancer.

Possible risk factors

The following factors have been linked with salivary gland cancer, but there is not enough evidence to show they are known risk factors. Further study is needed to clarify the role of these factors for salivary gland cancer.

Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)

Some studies have shown a link between EBV infection and a type of salivary gland cancer called lymphoepithelial carcinoma. This type of cancer is mostly seen in Inuit and people living in southern China.


While tobacco is a strong risk factor for other types of head and neck cancer, the evidence isn’t as strong for salivary gland cancer. Some studies show that people who use tobacco products have a higher risk, while others don’t show the same results. The risk of developing salivary gland cancer from using smokeless tobacco, such as chewing tobacco or snuff, is not very clear.

Unknown risk factors

It isn’t known whether or not the following factors are linked with salivary gland cancer. It may be that researchers can’t show a definite link or that studies have had different results. Further study is needed to see if the following are risk factors for salivary gland cancer:

  • alcohol
  • occupational exposures
  • cell phones
  • family history of salivary gland cancer
  • diet

Questions to ask your healthcare team

To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about risks.


Researcher Dr Réjean Lapointe Dr Réjean Lapointe is developing a gel to improve immunotherapy.

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