Head and neck cancer

Head anc neck cancer graphicFind out more about head and neck cancer, including how common it is and ways to reduce your risk

On this page:

> Head and neck cancer statistics
> What is head and neck cancer?
> What are the risk factors?
> How to cut your risk 

How common is head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancer (previously referred to as mouth and throat cancer; mouth, pharynx and larynx; or MPL cancer), is the eighth most common cancer in the UK. In 2019, 13,049 new cases were diagnosed*.

Head and neck cancers affect men at more than twice the rate as women. In 2019, there were 8,987 cases of head and neck cancer in men, making it the fifth most common cancer type. There were 4,062 cases of head and neck cancer in women, making it the 10th most common cancer type.

What is head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancer refers any of more than 30 areas within the head and neck, where cancer can develop.

These include:

  • the tongue
  • lips
  • gums
  • tonsils
  • lining of the mouth
  • the throat (see below).

The throat, also known as the pharynx, leads down from the nose and mouth to the voicebox, also known as the larynx. Cancer of the throat is also known as pharyngeal cancer. Cancer of the voicebox is also known as laryngeal cancer.

Head and neck cancers are caused by damaged cells, which can grow uncontrollably to form a tumour. When you use tobacco or drink alcohol, your mouth and throat are directly exposed to cancer-causing substances (carcinogens).

Alcohol may also function as a solvent to help other dietary or environmental carcinogens (for example tobacco) enter cells.

> We cover nasopharyngeal cancer separately – find out more about it

Oesophageal cancer and brain tumours are not included within head and neck cancer.

Who is most at risk of head and neck cancer?

As with all cancers, the risk of developing head and neck cancer depends on a number of factors and varies from person to person.

Lifestyle risk factors

> Smoking
> Drinking alcohol
> Being overweight or obese

While drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco are both independent causes, the risk of head and neck cancer is greater if you smoke AND drink alcohol.

Other risk factors

  • Age – risk increases as you get older
  • Gender – head and neck cancer is three times more common in men than in women (may in part be related to higher rates of smoking in men)
  • Infection with human papilloma virus (HPV) increases the risk of head and neck cancer
  • Exposure to asbestos may increase the risk of laryngeal cancer

How can you reduce your risk of head and neck cancer?

These three steps are based on research from our Global Cancer Update Programme (CUP Global).

1. Do not smoke or use tobacco

This is the most important step you can take to reduce your risk of head and neck cancer. Tobacco use (including smokeless tobacco, sometimes called ‘chewing tobacco’ or ‘snuff’) are known causes of head and neck cancer. The risk increases with the amount and the length of time of use. If you do smoke, the NHS stop smoking service can help you quit.

2. Don’t drink alcohol

There is strong scientific evidence that alcohol is a cause of head and neck cancer. Find out more about the link between alcohol and cancer or find out how many calories are in alcoholic drinks by using our alcohol calorie calculator. You can also browse our Real Recipes for some inspirational mocktail ideas.

3. Be a healthy weight

Being overweight or obese is a cause of head and neck cancer. Try our body mass index calculator to check if you’re a healthy weight for your height.

> Visit the NHS website to find out about the symptoms and treatment of head and neck cancer

*Cancer statistics based on combined data from EnglandScotlandNorthern Ireland and Wales. World Cancer Research Fund, 2022.