Laryngeal cancer

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Risk factors for laryngeal 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. Smoking is the most important risk factor for laryngeal cancer.

Laryngeal cancer most commonly occurs in people between 50 and 60 years of age. It is more common in men because they are more likely to be heavy smokers and to drink more alcohol. But laryngeal cancer is becoming more common in women because more of them are becoming long-term smokers. This type of cancer is rarely found in non-smokers.

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 the following factors increase your risk for laryngeal cancer.

Smoking

Smoking tobacco (including cigarettes, cigars, pipes and bidis) is the main risk factor for developing laryngeal cancer. The more you smoke and the longer you are a smoker, the greater your risk. The risk of developing laryngeal cancer decreases with time after you quit smoking.

People who continue to smoke after treatment for laryngeal cancer have a greater risk of developing a second head and neck cancer than people who quit smoking.

The risk of laryngeal cancer is also higher in non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke. The more smoke you are exposed to, the greater the risk.

Alcohol

The more alcohol you drink, the greater your risk for laryngeal cancer. The type of alcohol does not seem to affect the risk.

People who continue to drink heavily after treatment for laryngeal cancer have a greater risk of developing a second head and neck cancer than people who stop drinking.

Combined smoking and alcohol use

Smoking and drinking alcohol together increases the risk for laryngeal cancer significantly more than either smoking or drinking alcohol alone.

Asbestos

Asbestos is a group of minerals that occur naturally. It has been widely used in building materials and many industries. Exposure to asbestos fibres in the air increases the risk of developing laryngeal cancer. The risk of exposure is highest for people who work with asbestos, such as people who work as miners or in manufacturing.

Sulphuric acid

Sulphuric acid is a strong acid that is very irritating and damaging to human tissues. It is used in making and finishing metals, making fertilizer and making batteries. It is also used in the chemical and petrochemical industries. People who work in these industries can be exposed to sulphuric acid. Several studies show that workers exposed to sulphuric acid mist have higher rates of laryngeal cancer.

Possible risk factors

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

Gastroesophageal reflux

Gastroesophageal reflux is when the contents of the stomach (including stomach acid) back up (reflux) into the esophagus, causing heartburn and discomfort in the upper abdomen or chest. It can be caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or it can happen after the stomach is removed (gastrectomy). Some research suggests that stomach acid can back up to the larynx, damaging the tissues and increasing the risk for laryngeal cancer.

Family history of cancer

Several studies suggest that people with a family history of cancer, especially head and neck cancers, have a higher risk of developing laryngeal cancer.

Diet

There is some evidence that people who don’t eat many vegetables and fruit have a higher risk for laryngeal cancer, especially if they smoke. Eating large amounts of animal products, processed meats and fat may also increase the risk for laryngeal cancer.

Human papillomavirus (HPV)

HPV is a group of more than 100 different types of viruses. These viruses can be transmitted through sexual intercourse, genital skin-to-skin contact and oral sex. HPV can cause warts (called papillomas) on different parts of the body, including the lining of the larynx. HPV infection is very common and can be present for years without symptoms. It is a known risk factor for cervical cancer and oropharyngeal cancer, and it may be linked with cancer of the larynx.

Unknown risk factors

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

  • drinking very hot beverages (temperatures above 70°C)
  • smoking cannabis (marijuana)

Researchers are also trying to find out if working in certain industries, including the following, can increase the risk for laryngeal cancer:

  • nickel and nickel mining
  • alcohol manufacturing
  • metal working

More research is needed to find out if being exposed to certain chemicals, such as the following, can increase the risk for laryngeal cancer:

  • formaldehyde
  • mustard gas
  • dust from mining and other industries
  • mineral vitreous fibres (such as mineral wool and glass filaments)
  • solvents

Questions to ask your healthcare team

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

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