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Does Tobacco Cause Head and Neck Cancer?

May 9, 2022

About 1,000 Georgia residents will die of head or neck cancer this year.

While these cancers can result from a variety of causes, including occupational exposure to asbestos and other fibers, the leading causes are alcohol and tobacco use – including secondhand smoke and smokeless tobacco.

Alcohol and tobacco are especially the most important risk factors for cancers of the mouth, throat, and voice box. If you use both tobacco and alcohol, you increase your risk of developing these cancers over people who either smoke or drink alcohol.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms vary. You may notice a lump in the neck or a sore in the mouth or throat that does not heal. A persistent sore throat could be a symptom, as could difficulty swallowing, or a hoarseness in the voice. These symptoms can also be caused by other, much less serious conditions, so it’s important to see a doctor or dentist if you start to experience them.

Specific things to look for:

  • In the mouth. Symptoms include a white or red patch on the gums, tongue, or mouth lining; a growth or swelling that causes dentures to fit poorly or uncomfortably, or unusual bleeding or mouth pain.
  • In the throat. Symptoms include pain when you swallow, persistent pain in the neck or throat, pain or ringing in the ears, or trouble hearing.
  • In the voice box. Symptoms include trouble breathing or speaking, and pain when you swallow.
  • In the sinuses and nasal cavity. Symptoms include persistently blocked sinuses, chronic sinus infections that do not respond to antibiotics, nose bleeds, frequent headaches, swollen eyes, pain in your upper teeth, or denture problems.
  • In the salivary glands. Symptoms include swelling under the chin or around your jawbone, numbness or paralysis of facial muscles, or persistent pain in the face, chin, or neck.

How common are head and neck cancers?

Nationwide, head and neck cancers represent almost 4% of all cancers. They tend to be twice as common in men, and they are more often diagnosed in people over 50.

Researchers project that more than 68,000 men and women are diagnosed with head and neck cancers each year. Most will have mouth, throat, or voice box cancer. Other head and neck cancers, such as paranasal sinus cavity cancer and salivary gland cancer, are far less common.

How can I protect myself against these cancers?

If you use tobacco, stop.

You should also talk to your doctor about getting the HPV (human papilloma virus) vaccine, which can prevent several different kinds of head and neck cancers.

Finally, you should regularly ask your dentist to check your mouth for signs of cancer during routine checkups.

Get the care you need

If you have questions about head and neck cancers or need help to quit tobacco usage, you should speak with your doctor. If you do not have a doctor, Grady Health System can help.  If you need a primary care physician, give us a call at (404) 616-1000. We’ll arrange an appointment at a Primary Care Center near you. Doctors there can treat most conditions and provide access to Grady’s unparalleled medical specialty expertise.

hands of a person smoking and the other is holding a glass of whisky


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