Nasopharyngeal cancer risks and causes
This page tells you about the risks and causes of nasopharyngeal cancer. You can find the following information
Risks and causes of nasopharyngeal cancer
Cancers of the nasopharynx are very rare in the UK. We don’t know exactly what causes most nasopharyngeal cancers, but we do know of several risk factors.
Known risk factors
- Diet - poor diet may increase your risk. We know that nasopharyngeal cancer is more common in communities where people eat a lot of cured, salted or pickled foods
- Viruses - nasopharyngeal cancers have been linked to the Epstein Barr virus (EBV). But most people carry EBV and it does them no harm
- Family history - risk is higher in people with a close relative who has had nasopharyngeal cancer
- Exposure to wood dust - people exposed through their work have an increased risk, but we don't know which chemicals in treated wood cause this
- Exposure to formaldehyde - an industrial chemical used to make other chemicals and building materials
- Smoking - risk is up to 3 times higher in people who are long term smokers (30 years or more) than people who don't smoke
Alcohol may increase the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer, but the evidence isn't as clear as with other types of head and neck cancer. Some chronic ear, nose and throat conditions may also increase the risk.
You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the about nasopharyngeal cancer section.
Cancers of the nasopharynx are very rare in the UK. There are around 240 cases diagnosed here each year. It is more common in some ethnic groups living in the UK, for example, people of Chinese origin. Nasopharyngeal cancer is also more common in men than women.
We don’t know exactly what causes most nasopharyngeal cancers, but we do know that several things affect your risk.
A poor diet may increase your risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. This may be because of a lack of some vitamins and minerals. People who eat more fresh vegetables, fresh fruit and other sources of vitamin C may 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, and it may be that this is due to their diet.
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 a number of 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.
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.
People who have ever smoked are at an increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. Research has shown that the increase in risk can be up to 3 times higher in long term smokers (30 years or longer).
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.
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