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Nasopharyngeal cancer risks and causes

Men and women discussing nasopharyngeal cancer

This page tells you about the risks and causes of nasopharyngeal cancer. You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

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 and 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, especially if the relative was under 40
  • 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
  • Chronic ear, nose and throat disease - this includes chronic blocked and runny nose (rhinitis), middle ear infections (otitis media), and polyps
  • Smoking - risk is up to 3 times higher in people who are long  term smokers (25 years or more) than people who don't smoke

Unlike most other types of head and neck cancer, alcohol is not a known risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer.
 

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

 

 

How common nasopharyngeal cancer is

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. There is information about this in the diet section below. We don’t know exactly what causes most nasopharyngeal cancers, but we do know that several things affect your risk.

 

Diet

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. This is important throughout life, especially in childhood.

Nasopharyngeal cancer is more common in parts of Asia, Northern Africa, and the Arctic 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 China and Hong Kong have shown that babies and young children who eat Chinese cured and salted fish are at an especially high risk of nasopharyngeal cancer later in life. 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. Some studies have shown an increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer among people who drink tea made from Chinese medicinal herbs.

 

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 a number of cancers, including Hodgkin’s disease and Burkitt’s lymphoma (a type of non Hodgkin's lymphoma) as well as nasopharyngeal cancer. There is also evidence of a link between the human papilloma virus (HPV) certain nasopharyngeal cancers.

 

Inherited risk

The risk of nasopharyngeal cancer is higher in people who have a relative who has had it. The risk to other family members appears higher if the relative was diagnosed before the age of 40 and is a first degree relative. A first degree relative is a parent, brother, sister, son or daughter.

 

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.

Exposure to wood fires for cooking in the home over many years and using solvents in the workplace have been linked to nasopharyngeal cancer in one study. But other studies do not show a link with solvents in the workplace, or fumes from wood fires. A study in Africa showed that exposure to compact charcoal oven fumes in childhood could increase nasopharyngeal cancer risk but there didn't seem to be an increased risk from exposure to the fumes in adults.

One study has shown an increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer for people exposed to chlorophenol, which is used in pesticides and as a wood preservative.

 

Ear, nose and throat disease

People who have had chronic ear nose and throat diseases at some point in the past are at an increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. This includes chronic blocked and runny nose (rhinitis), middle ear infections (otitis media) and polyps.

 

Smoking

Research has shown that smoking causes an increase in the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer, which can be up to 3 times higher in long term smokers (25 years or longer).

 

Alcohol

Unlike most other types of head and neck cancer, alcohol is not a known risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer.

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Updated: 3 February 2013