Preventing Head & Neck Cancer

Doctors at NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center recommend making lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of head and neck cancer.

Stop Smoking

Many head and neck cancers are linked to smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco. Our doctors strongly urge people who smoke to quit. Our Tobacco Cessation Program can provide assistance and resources to help you quit.

Limit Alcohol Intake

Long-term, heavy alcohol use also increases the odds of being diagnosed with mouth and throat cancer. A combination of heavy smoking and drinking greatly increases the odds.

Perlmutter Cancer Center doctors advise drinking alcohol in moderation—no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one drink per day for women. Talk with your doctor about how to find support if you want to cut back.

Avoid HPV Infection

Research shows that infection with the human papillomavirus, or HPV, is an increasingly important risk factor for head and neck cancer, especially cancers of the base of the tongue, tonsils, and throat. HPV is easily transmitted through contact with mucous membranes, usually through vaginal, oral, and anal sex.

There are many different types of HPV. Low-risk strains can cause warts, and high-risk strains can lead to cancer. Researchers believe that the HPV types that can lead to head and neck cancer can be transmitted through oral sex.

HPV vaccines protect against high-risk strains of the virus. They are most effective when given before a person becomes sexually active, at age 11 or 12. Consult your gynecologist, urologist, pediatrician, or primary care doctor for more information on the options. Researchers are currently trying to determine how effective the HPV vaccines are in preventing head and neck cancer.

Most people’s immune systems destroy HPV after it’s contracted, but that’s not always the case. In addition to getting vaccinated, avoid sex with multiple partners and use condoms or other barrier methods when having vaginal, anal, or oral sex. This can help reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of becoming infected with HPV. Condoms, for instance, don’t cover all areas of skin or mucous membranes that may be infected.