Risks and causes of salivary gland cancer

Salivary gland cancer is a very rare cancer. Around 720 people are diagnosed with salivary gland cancer in the UK every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. 

We don’t know what causes salivary gland cancer but several factors can increase your risk.

What is a risk factor?

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is a risk factor. Different cancers have different risk factors.

Even if you have more than one risk factor it doesn’t mean you will definitely get a disease.

Age

Your risk of getting salivary gland cancer increases as you get older. Most people who develop it are in their 50s or 60s. Remember, the risk is still small because this is a rare cancer.

For most cancers, the biggest risk factor is getting older.

Being exposed to radiation

You are at higher risk of developing salivary gland cancer if you have been exposed to radiation.

This may be because you had radiotherapy to your head or neck for another type of cancer such as Hodgkin lymphoma or thyroid cancer. Or you may have previously come into contact with radioactive substances through your work.

There is some evidence of risk from radioiodine therapy, which is an effective type of internal radiotherapy treatment for thyroid cancer.

Having radiotherapy for a childhood cancer may increase the risk of salivary gland cancer for at least 20 years after treatment.

Family history

Your risk of developing salivary gland cancer may be increased if someone else in your family has had it.

This may be due to lifestyle factors that are common within families and not necessarily anything to do with a genetic link. More research is needed to work out how strong the link might be.

Other possible causes

There are often stories about potential causes in the media. It isn’t always clear which ideas are supported by evidence. There might be things you have heard of that we haven’t included here. This is because either there is no evidence about them or it is less clear.

  • Cancer Incidence from Cancer Intelligence Statistical Information Team at Cancer Research UK (2017 - 2019 UK average) 
    Accessed March 2023

  • WHO Classification of Head and Neck Tumours
    WHO Classification of Tumours, 4th Edition, Volume 9
    IARC Press, 2017

  • Salivary gland cancer: ESMO-European Reference Network on Rare Adult Solid Cancers (EURACAN) Clinical Practice Guideline for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up
    C van Herpen and others
    Practice Guideline ESMO Open, 2022. Vol 7, Issue 6

  • Second primary neoplasms among 53 159 haematolymphoproliferative malignancy patients in Sweden, 1958-1996: A search for common mechanisms
    C Dong and K Hemminki
    British Journal of Cancer, 2001. Volume 85, Issue 7

  • Environmental factors and the risk of salivary gland cancer
    PL Horn - Ross, BM Ljung and M Morrow
    Epidemiology, 1997. Volume 8, Issue 4

  • 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: 
27 Mar 2023
Next review due: 
27 Feb 2026

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