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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 240 cases diagnosed here each year.

Who gets it

Nasopharyngeal cancer is more common in some ethnic groups living in the UK – people of Chinese origin, for example. 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 get that cancer.

The risk factors for nasopharyngeal cancer are explained below. 

Diet

A poor diet might increase your risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. This might be because of a lack of some vitamins and minerals. People who eat more fresh vegetables, fresh fruit and other sources of vitamin C might have a lower 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.

Viruses

Viruses can help cause some cancers. But this does not mean that you can catch these cancers like an infection. The virus can cause genetic changes in cells that make them more likely to become cancerous in the future. Many people are affected with a cancer causing virus but never get cancer. The virus only causes cancer in certain situations.

Nasopharyngeal cancers have been linked to the Epstein Barr virus (EBV). Most people carry EBV and it does them no harm. This virus is linked to other cancers including Hodgkin lymphoma and Burkitt’s lymphoma (a type of non Hodgkin lymphoma) as well as nasopharyngeal cancer. 

There is also evidence of a link between the human papilloma virus (HPV) and certain types of nasopharyngeal 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.

Some chemicals

People exposed to wood dust through their work have an increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. Treated wood contains several chemicals, and we don’t know which of these causes the increased risk.

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.

Smoking

People who have ever smoked are at an increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. The increase in risk can be up to 3 times higher in long term smokers (30 years or longer).

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

The link between alcohol and nasopharyngeal cancer isn't as clear as with other types of head and neck cancer. Many studies have shown no strong link between drinking alcohol and the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. But a study in 2009 showed that a high intake of alcohol is linked to an increased risk.

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: 
06 Sep 2014
  • 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.

  • Association of fruit and vegetables with the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer: evidence from a meta-analysis

    J Jin (2014) 

    Scientific reports Jul 10;4:5229

  • Effect of family history of cancers and environmental factors on risk of nasopharyngeal carcinoma in Guangdong, China

    Z Ren and others (2010) 

    Cancer epidemiology Aug;34(4):419-24

  • Evaluation of nonviral risk factors for nasopharyngeal carcinoma in a high-risk population of Southern China

    X Guo and others (2009) 

    International journal of cancer Jun 15;124(12):2942-7

  • Wood dust exposure and the risk of upper aero-digestive and respiratory cancers in males

    Jayaprakash V and others (2008) 

    Occupational and environmental medicine Oct;65(10):647-54

  • Nasopharyngeal carcinoma in Malaysian Chinese: occupational exposures to particles, formaldehyde and heat

    R Armstrong and others (2000) 

    International journal of epidemiology Dec;29(6):991-8

  • 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

  • Case-control study evaluating the homogeneity and heterogeneity of risk factors between sinonasal and nasopharyngeal cancers

    K Zhu and others (2002) 

    International journal of cancer May 1;99(1):119-23

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