Risks and causes of laryngeal cancer

Your risk of developing cancer depends on many things, such as:

  • age
  • genetics
  • lifestyle
  • environmental factors

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

Laryngeal cancer is uncommon in the UK. There are some factors that are known to increase your risk. Having any of the below risk factors doesn’t mean that you’ll definitely develop laryngeal cancer.

Factors that increase your risk


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


Laryngeal cancer is more common in men than in women. It is diagnosed in more than 5 times as many men as women. We don’t know exactly why this is, but it might be because men are more likely to smoke and drink compared to women.


When you smoke, it passes through the larynx on its way to your lungs. This smoke contains harmful chemicals. Smoking tobacco (cigarettes, pipes, cigars) increases your risk of developing laryngeal cancer. It is one of the main risk factors for laryngeal cancer in the western world. 

Your cancer risk increases the longer you smoke and the more cigarettes smoked per day.

Drinking alcohol

Drinking alcohol increases your risk of laryngeal cancer. Smoking and drinking together further increases your risk of cancer.

UK guidelines recommend no more than 14 units of alcohol a week for both men and women. 

Exposure to certain substances

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) lists all cancer causing substances (carcinogens) in humans. They list the following substances as having enough evidence for increasing your risk of laryngeal cancer:

  • acid mists that are produced during certain manufacturing processes
  • asbestos – all types

Family history

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

Low immunity

Your body’s immune system fights infection. Some illnesses and medications can weaken your immune system. Research shows there may be an increased risk of laryngeal cancer if you:

  • have HIV or AIDS
  • are taking medication to suppress your immune system after an organ transplant

Previous cancers

If you have had certain cancers in the past, you have an increased risk of getting laryngeal cancer. This might be due to shared risks factors such as HPV, smoking and alcohol. These previous cancers include:

  • head and neck cancers which are not in the larynx
  • lung cancer
  • oesophageal cancer
  • bladder cancer
  • cervical cancer


Laryngeal cancer risk is twice as high in people with Helicobacter pylori infection. This is compared to those without. Helicobacter pylori is a type of bacteria that affects the stomach. It can cause stomach ulcers.

Medical conditions

Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease

Laryngeal cancer risk is more than twice higher in people with gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). GORD is a common condition where stomach acid flows back into the oesophagus from the stomach. This is called acid reflux. 

Laryngeal dysplasia

Laryngeal cancer develops in 14 out of every 100 (14%) people with laryngeal dysplasia. Laryngeal dysplasia is a precancerous condition. Laryngeal cancer risk in people with laryngeal dysplasia is higher in those with more severe dysplasia.

Factors that may increase your risk


There is some evidence to suggest a diet low in fruit and vegetables may increase your risk of laryngeal cancer. About 45 out of every 100 (45%) laryngeal cancers in the UK are linked to not eating enough fruit and vegetables.

HPV infection

HPV stands for human papilloma virus. It is a common infection and for most people it doesn't cause any problems and goes away on its own. 

Some research has suggested that HPV16 is linked to laryngeal cancer but more research is needed. It is a common cause of other types of head and neck cancers. But the link to laryngeal cancer is rare.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) lists the evidence for HPV as a risk factor for laryngeal cancer as limited.

Exposure to substances

Some substances may increase your risk of laryngeal cancer. You may have an increased risk if you have been exposed to:

  • substances used in the rubber production industry
  • second hand tobacco smoke – second hand smoke means the smoke that someone exhales when they smoke, as well as the smoke created by the lit end of a cigarette
  • sulfur mustard – a type of gas used in warfare

Other possible causes

Stories about potential causes are often in the media. It isn’t always clear which of the ideas reported are supported by good evidence. You might have heard about a possible cause that we haven’t included here. This is because there is either no evidence to support it, or that what the evidence shows is not fully clear.

More information

You can find more detailed information about laryngeal cancer risks and causes in the Cancer Research UK Statistics section.

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