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Risks and causes

There are some factors that can increase your risk of developing laryngeal cancer.

The risk factors for laryngeal cancer are explained below. Having any of these risk factors doesn't mean that you will definitely get cancer.

Age

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.

Smoking

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. 

Diet

There is some evidence to suggest a diet low in fruit and vegetables may increase your risk of laryngeal cancer.

HPV infection

HPV stands for human papilloma virus. Some research has suggested that HPV is linked to laryngeal cancer but more research is needed.

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

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

Exposure to substances

Some chemicals may increase your risk of laryngeal cancer. You may have an increased risk if you have been regularly exposed over some years to high levels of:

  • wood dust
  • soot or coal dust
  • paint fumes
  • coal as a fuel source

The chemicals in these substances can irritate the lining of your larynx. If these irritants are around you, you’re likely to breathe in and swallow small amounts.

You also have a higher risk or laryngeal cancer if you are exposed to these chemicals:

  • formaldehyde
  • nickle
  • isopropyl alcohol
  • sulphuric acid mist
  • diesel fumes
  • asbestos

But only a small number of cases of laryngeal cancer are caused by factors such as these.

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 which 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.

Detailed information about laryngeal cancer risks and causes

Last reviewed: 
12 Sep 2018
  • Contribution of tobacco and alcohol to the high rates of squamous cell carcinoma of the supraglottis and glottis in Central Europe
    M. Hashibe and others
    American Journal of Epidemiology, 2007, Volume165, Issue 7, Page 814-20

  • International Agency for Research on Cancer. List of Classifications by cancer sites with sufficient or limited evidence in humans, Volumes 1 to 105 
    Accessed October 2014

  • Cancers attributable to infection in the UK in 2010
    D Parkin
    British Journal of Cancer, 2011, Volume 105, Supplement 2, Pages 49-56

  • Alcohol drinking in never users of tobacco, cigarette smoking in never drinkers, and the risk of head and neck cancer: pooled analysis in the International Head and Neck Cancer Epidemiology Consortium
    M Hashibe and others
    Journal of National Cancer Institute, 2007, Volume 99, Issue 10, Pages 777-89

  • Family history of cancer: pooled analysis in the International Head and Neck Cancer Epidemiology Consortium
    E Negri
    International Journal of Cancer, 2009, Volume 124, Issue 2, Pages 394-401

  • 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.

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