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Risks and causes of laryngeal cancer

Men and women discussing laryngeal cancer

This page tells you about the risks and causes of laryngeal cancer. We don't know the exact causes of laryngeal cancer, but there are several factors that can increase the risk of developing it.

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Risks and causes of laryngeal cancer

Cancer of the larynx is rare in the UK. It is much more common in men than women. There are very few cases in people under 40 years of age. We don't know the exact causes of laryngeal cancer, but there are several factors that can increase the risk of developing it.

Alcohol and smoking

Smoking tobacco and drinking a lot of alcohol are the main risk factors for cancer of the larynx. If you smoke and drink regularly, you have a higher than average risk of developing cancer of the larynx. 

Other risk factors

Having a first degree relative diagnosed with head and neck cancer can increase the risk and so can having poor immunity

HPV stands for human papilloma virus (HPV). There are many types of HPV. Some can affect the lining of the larynx and slightly increase the risk of laryngeal cancer.

Some chemicals can increase your risk of cancer of the larynx. You may have an increased risk if you have regularly been exposed over some years to high levels of wood dust, soot or coal dust, or paint fumes.

A poor diet may also increase your risk. Stomach acid coming back up the oesophagus (acid reflux) can irritate and damage the larynx, which may also increase laryngeal cancer risk.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the About laryngeal cancer section.

 

 

How common larynx cancer is

Cancer of the larynx is rare. Just under 2,400 people are diagnosed in the UK each year. Fewer than 1 in every 100 cancers is a cancer of the larynx.

Cancer of the larynx is more common in men than in women. There are more than 4 times as many men diagnosed as women.

 

Age

As with most cancers, cancer of the larynx is more common in older people than in younger. There are very few cases in people under 40 years of age.

 

Drinking alcohol and smoking

Smoking tobacco and drinking a lot of alcohol are the main risk factors for cancer of the larynx in the western world. You are at a higher than average risk of developing cancer of the larynx if you smoke and drink regularly.

Alcohol and cigarettes contain chemicals that increase the risk of cancer. The alcohol passes over the top of the larynx (the epiglottis) as you swallow. When you smoke, the smoke passes through the larynx on its way to your lungs. You can find out about the parts of the larynx in this section.

Heavy drinking and smoking is particularly linked to cancer above the vocal cords (the supraglottis) and the area around the vocal cords (the glottis). Compared to non drinkers, heavy drinkers have about 3 times the risk of developing cancer of the larynx. Even drinking less than two drinks a day (for example two pints of beer or two small glasses of wine) gives a slightly increased risk of laryngeal cancer. But non smokers are unlikely to have an increased risk of laryngeal cancer at this level of drinking.

A review of 13 research studies has shown that people who give up drinking alcohol can significantly reduce the risk of cancer of the larynx over a period of 5 to 10 years. After this time the risk slowly continues to decrease for a further 20 to 30 years. At this point the risk of laryngeal cancer is the same is the same as it is for people who have never drunk alcohol.

Your risk of cancer increases the longer you smoke and with the number of cigarettes smoked per day. One study shows that people who smoke more than 25 cigarettes a day or who have smoked for more than 40 years have about 40 times the risk of laryngeal cancer of a non smoker. If you smoke and drink a lot, your risk is much greater. The combined risk is greater than the risk of just smoking plus the risk of just drinking. One research study has estimated that as many as eight in ten laryngeal cancers (80%) could be prevented if people adopted a healthier lifestyle. There is more about how smoking and drinking alcohol affect your cancer risk on our News and Resources website.

One study has also shown an increased risk of laryngeal cancer in people who have never smoked but have been exposed to environmental tobacco smoke at home or at work for more than 15 years. But we need more research to confirm this.

 

HPV infection

HPV stands for human papilloma virus (HPV). There are many types of HPV. Some types can affect the lining of the larynx and cause small, wart like growths. The papillomas can be removed, but often come back. They may occur in children and doctors call this juvenile onset recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP). The strains of HPV that cause RRP are different from those which seem to be linked with laryngeal squamous cell carcinoma. One study has shown that HPV has been found in around 25% of laryngeal cancers. But we don't know for sure how this links to the prevention and treatment of laryngeal cancer, and more research is needed.

 

Diet

Poor eating patterns are common in people who are heavy drinkers. This may be one reason why alcohol increases the risk of cancer. A poor diet may increase your risk of cancer of the larynx. This may be due to a lack of vitamins and minerals.

A diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables seems to reduce the risk of cancer of the larynx. This may be because these foods contain high levels of the antioxidant vitamins A, C and E. Vitamins and other substances in fresh foods may help to stop damage to the lining of the larynx that can lead to cancer.

One research study found that a Western style diet, high in processed, fried and barbecued meat, gives an increased risk of laryngeal cancer. Another study showed an increased risk for people eating processed meat three times a week or more, but more studies are needed to check this.

 

Family history

People who have a first degree relative diagnosed with a head and neck cancer have double the risk of laryngeal cancer of someone without a family history. A first degree relative is a parent, brother, sister or child.

 

Low immunity

HIV and AIDs lower immunity and so do drugs that people take after organ transplants. Studies have shown that people with HIV or AIDS have a risk of laryngeal cancer that is 3 times higher than people who do not have HIV or AIDS. People who take drugs to suppress their immune system following an organ transplant have a risk of laryngeal cancer that is double that of the general population.

 

Exposure to substances

Some chemicals may increase your risk of cancer of the larynx. You may have an increased risk if you have been regularly exposed to high levels of wood dust, soot or coal dust, or paint fumes over some years. The chemicals in these substances can irritate the lining of your larynx. If these irritants are around you, you are likely to breathe in and swallow small amounts.

Exposure to coal as a fuel source in the home over many years has been linked to a higher risk of laryngeal cancer. The NICE manual on improving outcomes in head and neck cancers also lists exposure to formaldehyde, nickel, isopropyl alcohol, sulphuric acid mist and diesel fumes as being linked to laryngeal cancer. There is evidence that exposure to asbestos fibres may increase the risk of developing cancer of the larynx later on in life.

Some research has looked into exposure to cement dust in builders and construction workers but this has not shown a clear link to laryngeal cancer.

 

Acid reflux

Reflux happens when stomach acid comes back up the oesophagus and irritates the lining. In the long term this can cause damage to the cells in the oesophagus. This irritation and damage can extend to the larynx and may increase cancer risk. Some research has looked into past stomach surgery and laryngeal cancer risk. The theory is that bile reflux is more common after stomach surgery and this may increase irritation of the larynx.

 

Larynx cancer in children

There are extremely rare reports of larynx cancer in children who have no known risk factors. This may be due to some gene fault that the child has inherited. So far, no gene fault has been identified for cancer of the larynx.

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Updated: 15 January 2014