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Oral and Pharyngeal Cancer

Oral and Pharyngeal Cancer and the Environment

Oral and pharyngeal cancers, which are cancers of the mouth and throat, include cancers in the

  • tongue,
  • gum,
  • floor of mouth,
  • palate,
  • lip,
  • oral cavity,
  • pharynx, and
  • other areas of the mouth.

Each year in the United States, more than 36,000 new cases of oral and pharyngeal cancer are diagnosed and over 8,000 deaths due to oral cancer occur. The 5-year survival rate for these cancers is about 62 percent. Studies have shown that exposure to secondhand smoke increases a person's risk for developing oral and pharyngeal cancers. Research is needed to better understand the relationship between the environment and oral and pharyngeal cancers, which may help determine other potential risk factors for this disease.

Exposure and Risk

Tobacco and Alcohol

Tobacco use and alcohol consumption are well-known risk factors for oral and pharyngeal cancers, regardless of the type of tobacco product used or alcoholic beverage consumed. Three out of four people with oral cancer have used tobacco, alcohol, or both. On the Tracking Network, you can also find data on the prevalence of smoking, which might be helpful when looking at the incidence of oral and pharyngeal cancers.


Men are at a higher risk for developing oral and pharyngeal cancers, and are more than two times more likely to be diagnosed with these diseases than women. Each year more than 25,000 men are diagnosed with oral cancer.


Among men, black men have the highest oral cancer death rate. The second highest death rate is in white men.


Cancers of the mouth and throat usually take many years to develop, so they are not common in young people. The risk of developing oral and pharyngeal cancer greatly increases with age. Most people who are diagnosed with oral and pharyngeal cancers are over 60 years old.

People with the following risk factors may be more likely to develop oral and pharyngeal cancer:

  • smoking and chewing tobacco,
  • being a heavy drinker of alcohol,
  • having a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection,
  • being exposed to the sun,
  • having a personal history of oral cancer, and
  • having diets low in fruits and vegetables.
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You may be able to reduce your risk of developing oral and pharyngeal cancers by avoiding or changing behaviors that are known risk factors for these diseases. These healthy behaviors may help prevent oral and pharyngeal cancers:

  • Don't smoke or use any tobacco products.
  • Avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.
  • Limit your alcohol consumption. If you do choose to drink alcohol, drink in moderation.
  • Limit exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from natural sunlight and artificial sunlight (such as tanning beds), which can cause cancer in the lip.
  • Choose a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables, which may also help prevent other diseases.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight.
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