Risk Factors

Risk Factors

Patients diagnosed with cancer often wonder what caused their cancer or could a different lifestyle have prevented it.

Since cancers are a very complex group of diseases, doctors can't always explain why one person develops cancer while another one doesn't. In fact, patients who are young, healthy and do not smoke or drink can get oral cancer, while some heavy smokers remain cancer free. Medical research and clinical studies have found that certain risk factors may increase the chance of getting oral cancer.

The more risk factors a person has, the greater his or her chance of developing oral cancer. The risk is especially high for people with heavy alcohol and tobacco use.


As many as 80 percent of patients with oral cancers use some type of tobacco product. The risk increases with increased duration and frequency of tobacco use. Smokers are almost 10 times more likely to develop oral cancer than nonsmokers.


About 70 percent of people diagnosed with oral cancer are heavy drinkers. Scientific studies have shown a link between alcohol use and oral cancer, with moderate to heavy drinkers having up to a 9 times greater risk of developing this type of cancer.

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)

HPV is a common, sexually transmitted virus, which infects about 40 million Americans today. It is the same virus that has been linked to cervical cancers. The human papilloma virus HPV16 has been implicated in oral cancer, particularly those that occur in the back of the mouth at the base of tongue and tonsils (the area known as the oropharynx). People with oral cancers linked to HPV tend to be younger, and often do not smoke or drink.


Many oral cancers develop from pre-malignant conditions of the mouth, such as white or red patches. Early detection and treatment of these precancers may prevent development of oral cancer.

Betel Quid

Betel quid is a mixture of betel leaf, areca nut and slaked lime, and may also contain tobacco. Many people in South Asia and some Asian emigrants chew betel quid, which is addictive and has adverse health effects, including an increased oral cancer risk.

Ultraviolet Light

Exposure to ultraviolet radiation, usually from sunlight or tanning beds, is known to cause cancer of the lips as well as other skin cancers. Lip cancers are more common among people who work outdoors or have prolonged exposure to the sun. Oral cancer from UV exposure has declined over the last decades, most likely due to the increased awareness of the damaging effects of prolonged exposure to sunlight and the use of sunscreen for protection.


Research studies suggest a link between diets low in fruits and vegetables and an increase in oral cancer risk.

Other Factors

There are many other factors which may increase the risk of oral cancer. These include taking drugs to suppress the immune system for transplant rejection or to treat immune diseases. Certain genetic syndromes such as Fanconi anemia or Dyskeratosis congenita carry a high risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer.

Personal History

People who have had oral cancer are at an increased risk of developing another oral cancer. The risk is increased if they continue to use tobacco and alcohol.

But please remember: Most people with known risk factors for oral cancer don't develop the disease.