How to Reduce Your Risk of Head and Neck Cancer

by Sheila M. Eldred Health Writer

If you know someone who has been diagnosed with head and neck cancer, you’re probably interested in learning how you and your loved ones can lower your risk. The good news? Lifestyle changes can greatly reduce risk factors for many people.

Here are some tips to help you stack the odds in your favor.

Fist crushing cigarettes.

Stomp out smoking

Stopping tobacco use is by far the No. 1 most effective strategy to reduce your risk of head and neck cancer. In fact, smoking, chewing tobacco, and snuff are linked to 85 percent of head and neck cancers.

While ridding yourself of tobacco exposure completely is most helpful, reducing the amount you use can aid with recovery from cancer, research has shown.

Man's hand rejecting alcohol.

Cut back on alcohol

Many head and neck cancers are associated with alcohol, especially frequent and heavy drinking. These include cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus.

Drinkers should stop sooner rather than later: It appears to take many years of abstaining from alcohol for risks of cancer to diminish.

Alcohol and cigarette.

Smoking and drinking together is even worse

The combination of smoking and drinking exponentially increases the chances of getting a head or neck cancer.

One study showed that, on top of having an increased risk of getting cancer, smokers and drinkers faced much worse prognoses after cancer diagnosis: Smokers were twice as likely to die of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma as nonsmokers, and the disease was 68 percent more likely to end in fatality for drinkers.

Doctor giving patient a vaccine.

Get the jab for HPV prevention

While tobacco and alcohol have long been the top causes of head and neck cancer, some experts think HPV infections may move into that No. 1 spot. Already, oral cancers with an HPV connection have tripled over the past two decades.

The HPV vaccine is available for kids starting at age 11 and young adults through age 26.

Smiling woman wearing sunglasses and a sun hat.

Shield yourself from the sun

To prevent cancer of the lip area as well as skin cancer of the head and neck, follow these tips from the American Society of Clinical Oncology:

  • When possible, stay away from the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Don UV-protective sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat. Consider clothing made from UV-protective fabric, and avoid loosely woven clothing.
  • Slather on the sunscreen, year-round: Use more than you think you should! Experts recommend an ounce of broad-spectrum every two hours.
  • No tanning on purpose: not at the beach, not at the salon, not in your home.
Woman at a dentist appointment.

Keep your dentist in business

Visiting your dentist every six months is good for more than your pearly whites: Most head and neck cancers begin in the mouth, and your dentist can screen for them in under five minutes.

If you’re a denture-wearer, remove them every night, and keep up a daily cleaning routine. Have your dentist ensure your dentures are a perfect fit so they don’t trap any cancer-causing substances from alcohol and tobacco.

Colorful salad.

Eat the rainbow ...

For smokers and drinkers, eating all the kale in the world won’t lower your risk of head and neck cancer nearly as much as quitting tobacco and alcohol. But evidence suggests that gobbling up fruits, vegetables and lean protein — while avoiding processed and red meats — can stack the odds in your favor.

Orange smoothies.

… And make it delicious

If you don’t know kohlrabi from jicama, that’s OK: Keep it simple. Fill half your plate with colorful fruits and veggies.

When you’re feeling a bit more ambitious, check out these simple (and quick) juice and smoothie recipes for cancer prevention. Orange sunset smoothie, anyone?

Family eating a healthy meal together.

Stay on a healthy path

All of these healthy lifestyle changes will help reduce your risk of head and neck cancer. But one of the most important changes you can make merits repeating: Don’t use any form of tobacco. If you already do, stop.

Of course, quitting isn’t easy. Here are some tips from the American Cancer Society for staying tobacco-free after you quit. Making this change, and others, can help you protect yourself from head and neck cancer.

Sheila M. Eldred
Meet Our Writer
Sheila M. Eldred

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a graduate of Columbia’s School of Journalism and a former newspaper reporter. As a freelance health journalist, she writes about everything from life-threatening diseases to elite athletes. Her stories have appeared in The New York Times, Nature, FiveThirtyEight, Pacific Standard, STAT News, and other publications. In her spare time, she and her family love running, cross-country skiing, and mountain biking in Minneapolis.