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Risks and causes

Find out what causes nasopharyngeal cancer and how you might reduce your risk.

How common it is

Nasopharyngeal cancer is very rare in the UK. There are around 250 cases diagnosed here each year.

Who gets it

Nasopharyngeal cancer is more common in some ethnic groups living in the UK. For example in people of Chinese origin. It is also more common in men than women.

What a risk factor is

Anything that can increase your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor.

Different cancers have different risk factors.­ Having one or more of these risk factors doesn't mean you will definitely get that cancer.

The risk factors for nasopharyngeal cancer are explained below. 

Infection

You can’t catch cancer, but some infections can increase the risk that you will develop cancer.

Epstein Barr virus (EBV) is a very common virus that can increase the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. Most people carry EBV and it does them no harm. This virus is linked to other cancers including Hodgkin lymphoma and Burkitt's lymphoma, which is a type of non Hodgkin lymphoma.

EBV can cause genetic changes in cells that make them more likely to become cancerous in the future. 8 in 10 cases of nasopharyngeal cancer in the UK are caused by EBV. But many people will be infected with EBV and not develop cancer.

Smoking

People who have ever smoked are at an increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. The risk is higher in long term smokers.

Diet

Certain foods might increase your risk of nasopharyngeal cancer.

Nasopharyngeal cancer is more common in parts of Asia and Northern Africa than it is in Europe. Diets very high in salt cured meats and fish or pickled foods are more common in some of these places. These foods can be very high in nitrates and nitrites, which react with protein to form nitrosamines. These chemicals can damage DNA.

Studies in Asia have shown that people who eat Chinese cured and salted fish are at an increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. People from China, or with Chinese ancestry living in the UK, have higher rates of nasopharyngeal cancer than other ethnic groups. This might be due to their diet.

There is also some evidence that eating lots of fruit and vegetables could decrease the risk of nasophayngeal cancer.

Inherited risk

The risk of nasopharyngeal cancer is higher in people who have a close relative who has had it. This increased risk might be due to inherited genes as well as shared environmental and lifestyle factors.

Occupational risk

People exposed to wood dust through their work have an increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. We don’t know exactly how it increases cancer risk, but it could be from breathing in checmicals from treated wood.

People exposed to formaldehyde also have an increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. Formaldehyde is an industrial chemical used to make other chemicals and building materials.

Ear, nose and throat conditions

People who have had chronic ear, nose and throat conditions at some point in the past might have an increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. These conditions include a chronic blocked and runny nose (rhinitis), middle ear infections (otitis media) and polyps.

Alcohol

There is some research that suggests drinking alcohol can increase the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer, but the evidence isn’t clear. However drinking alcohol can lead to other head and neck cancers.

Other possible causes

Stories about potential causes of cancer are often in the media. It isn’t always clear which ideas are supported by good evidence.

You might hear about possible causes we haven’t included here. This is because there is no evidence about them or because it is not clear what the available evidence shows.

Last reviewed: 
05 Apr 2018
  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular risk or cause you are interested in.

  • Pathology and Genetics of Head and Neck Tumours
    World Health Organization, International Agency for Research on Cancer
    IARC, 2005 

  • Nasopharyngeal carcinoma: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines
    R Simo, M Robinson, M Lei and others
    The Journal of Laryngology and Otology, 2016

  • Association of fruit and vegetables with the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer: Evidence from a meta-analysis
    J Jin, Z Ouyang and Z Wanga
    Scientific reports, 2014

  • Genetic Predisposition Factors and Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma Risk: A Review of Epidemiological Association Studies, 2000–2011
    A Hildesheim and W Cheng-Ping
    Semin Cancer Biol, 2013

  • Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma: Keys for Translational Medicine and Biology
    P Busson
    Springer Science & Business Media, 2013

  • Independent effect of EBV and cigarette smoking on nasopharyngeal carcinoma: a 20-year follow-up study on 9,622 males without family history in Taiwan

    W Hsu and others (2009) 

    Cancer epidemiology, biomarkers and prevention Apr;18(4):1218-26

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