Risks and causes of nasopharyngeal cancer

Your risk of developing cancer depends on many things including age, genetics, lifestyle and environmental factors.

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

Different cancers have different risk factors.­ Having one or more of these risk factors doesn't mean you will definitely get that cancer.

Nasopharyngeal cancer is very rare in the UK. It is more common in men than women.

The risk factors for nasopharyngeal cancer include: 

Epstein Barr virus

You can’t catch cancer, but some viruses can increase the risk of developing cancer.

Epstein Barr virus (EBV) is a very common virus that can increase the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. Most people carry EBV and it does them no harm. This virus is linked to other cancers including Hodgkin lymphoma and Burkitt's lymphoma, which is a type of non Hodgkin lymphoma.

EBV can cause genetic changes in cells that make them more likely to become cancerous in the future. In the UK, 80 out of 100 cases of nasopharyngeal cancer (80%) are caused by EBV. But many people will be infected with EBV and not develop cancer.


People who smoke or used to smoke are at an increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. In the UK, 25 out of 100 cases of nasopharyngeal cancer (25%) are caused by smoking. People who smoke more heavily and over a longer time have a higher risk.


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 Open a glossary item.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) list Chinese-style salted fish as a cause of nasopharyngeal cancer. Chinese-style salted fish has higher amounts of nitrosamines than other types of salted fish.

Inherited risk

The risk of nasopharyngeal cancer is higher in people who have a close relative who has had it. This increased risk might be due to inherited genes as well as shared environmental and lifestyle factors.

Occupational risk

People exposed to wood dust through their work have an increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. We don’t know exactly how it increases cancer risk, but it could be from breathing in chemicals from treated wood.

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. Less than 1 out of 100 cases of nasopharyngeal cancer in Great Britain (less than 1%) is linked to exposure to formaldehyde at work.

Other possible causes

Stories about potential causes of cancer are often in the media. It isn’t always clear which ideas are supported by good evidence.

You might hear about possible causes we haven’t included here. This is because there is no evidence about them or because it is not clear what the available evidence shows.

For detailed information on the risk factors for head and neck cancer

  • Head and Neck Cancers risk
    Statistical Information Team at Cancer Research UK 

  • International Agency for Research on Cancer. List of Classifications by cancer sites with sufficient or limited evidence in humans, Volumes 1 to 129
    International Agency for Research on Cancer (Accessed Nov 2021)

  • The fraction of cancer attributable to known risk factors in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the UK overall in 2015
    KF Brown, H Rumgay, C Dunlop and others
    British Journal of Cancer, 2018. Volume 118, Issue 8, Pages 1130 - 1141

  • Nasopharyngeal carcinoma: ESMO-EURACAN Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow up
    P Bossi and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2021. Volume 32, Issue 4, Page 452-465

  • Nasopharyngeal carcinoma
    YP Chen and others
    The Lancet, 2019. Vol 394, Issue 10192, Pages 64-80

  • 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.

Last reviewed: 
04 Nov 2021
Next review due: 
04 Nov 2024

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