Mouth and throat cancer

Can mouth and throat cancer be prevented?

Mouth and throat cancer is the eighth most common cancer in the UK. In 2013, 10,655 new cases were diagnosed. The rates of this cancer are increasing – it’s also twice as common in men than women.

Scientists estimate that by not smoking or drinking alcohol, and by choosing a healthy diet, most cases of mouth and throat cancer could be prevented.

What is mouth and throat cancer?

Mouth and throat cancer refers to cancers of the tongue, lips, gums, tonsils, lining of the mouth and the upper part of the throat.

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.

Mouth and throat 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).

The main causes of mouth and throat cancer are tobacco and alcohol, but there are also several lifestyle choices you can make to reduce your risk of developing this cancer.

Who is most at risk of mouth and throat cancer?

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

Lifestyle risk factors

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

Other risk factors

Like most cancers, mouth and throat cancer mainly affects older people, so if you are 40 years or over, you are more likely to develop the disease.

Exposure to human papilloma virus (HPV), which can be transmitted through oral sex, may also be a risk factor for mouth and throat cancer.

If any of these risk factors apply to you, it does not mean that you will develop mouth and throat cancer – it just means that your risk may be higher than average. The good news is that there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.

How can you reduce your risk of mouth and throat and cancer?

These steps are based on research from our Continuous Update Project (CUP).

This is the most important step you can take to reduce your risk of mouth and throat cancer. If you do smoke, the NHS stop smoking service can help you quit.

Cut down on alcohol

There is strong scientific evidence that alcohol increases the risk of mouth and throat 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.

Eat well

Strong evidence shows that vegetables and fruit probably protect against cancers of the mouth and throat, so try to eat at least five portions of a variety of different types each day. Try our healthy recipes for ideas to help you include more vegetables and fruit in your diet.

Visit NHS Choices to find out about the symptoms and treatment of mouth and throat cancer.

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