Causes of laryngeal cancer 

Laryngeal cancer is caused by changes in the cells of the larynx, although it's not clear exactly why this happens.

All cancers begin with a change in a cell's DNA. DNA provides our cells with a basic set of instructions, such as when to grow and reproduce.

A change in DNA can alter the instructions that control cell growth, which means cells continue to grow instead of stopping when they should. This causes the cells to reproduce in an uncontrollable manner, producing a growth of tissue called a tumour.

It's not known why the DNA inside the cells of the larynx is affected in cases of laryngeal cancer. But it appears that exposure to things that can damage the cells and tissue of the larynx increases the risk of cancer developing.

What can increase your risk?

A number of things can increase your chances of developing laryngeal cancer.

Alcohol and tobacco

Alcohol and tobacco are the two main things that can increase your risk of developing laryngeal cancer. They're thought to contain chemicals that can damage the cells of the larynx.

The more you drink or smoke, the higher your risk of developing laryngeal cancer.

People who smoke more than 25 cigarettes a day, or people who have smoked for more than 40 years, have been found to be about 40 times more likely to develop laryngeal cancer than people who don't smoke.

Compared to people who don't drink, people who regularly drink large amounts of alcohol are about three times more likely to develop laryngeal cancer.

If you drink and smoke, your risk of laryngeal cancer increases even further. By stopping both drinking and smoking, you can significantly reduce your risk of developing the condition. Read more about preventing laryngeal cancer.

Family history

People who have a first-degree relative (parent, sibling or child) diagnosed with head or neck cancer are thought to be twice as likely to develop laryngeal cancer as someone without a family history.

Diet

There's evidence to suggest that a diet high in red meat, processed food and fried food might increase your risk of developing laryngeal cancer.

Having a "Mediterranean diet" or a diet containing plenty of fruit and vegetables may reduce your risk. Read more about preventing laryngeal cancer.

Human papilloma virus (HPV)

Human papilloma virus (HPV) is the name given to a group of viruses that affect the skin and moist membranes that line the body, such as those in the cervix (neck of the womb), anus, mouth and throat.

HPV is known to cause changes in the cells of the cervix, which can lead to cervical cancer. It's thought the virus may have a similar effect on the cells of the throat. HPV is often spread during sex, including oral sex.

Exposure to harmful substances

Having a job where you're exposed to high levels of certain substances may also increase your risk of developing laryngeal cancer. These include:

  • asbestos
  • coal or wood dust
  • paint or diesel fumes
  • nickel
  • sulphuric acid fumes
  • formaldehyde (a chemical used in a wide range of industrial processes, such as paint manufacturing and cosmetics)
  • isopropyl alcohol (often used as a cleaning solvent)

Page last reviewed: 07/08/2015

Next review due: 07/08/2017