What is head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancer is a term used to describe a number of different malignant tumors that develop in or around the throat, larynx (voice box), nose, tonsil, sinuses and mouth.

15 June, 2021

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Head and neck cancer (HNC) is the seventh most common type of cancer in the world and constitute 5% of the entire cancers worldwide. About 90% of all head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC). The impact of this disease on patients’ quality of life may be substantial as it can be physically disfiguring – changing the face that patients present to the world and may affect the ability to swallow, eat and talk.


In Switzerland about 1’700 new cases of head and neck cancer are diagnosed each year, about 530 die of it.


Worldwide an estimated 932’000 new cases of head and neck cancer were diagnosed in 2020, more than 467’000 died of it.

Incidence of head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancer is more common among men than women. The incidence of head and neck cancer increases with age. Although most patients are between age 50 to 70 years, the incidence in younger patients is increasing, related to cancers (primarily oropharyngeal) caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.

Areas of the head and neck where cancers begin

Main risk factors

There are several factors that greatly increase the risk of head and neck cancer:

Tobacco & Alcohol Use Tobacco and alcohol use are two of the biggest risk factors for head and neck cancers. At least 75% of cases are linked to tobacco and alcohol use, and secondhand smoke may also increase a person’s risk. People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk of developing these cancers than people who use either tobacco or alcohol alone.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) People infected with HPV, a sexually transmitted infection, are more likely to develop head and neck cancer. For most people, HPV clears on its own. But for those who do not clear the virus, it can cause certain head and neck cancers later in life.

Other risk factors include

Prolonged sun exposure

Epstein-Barr virus


Poor oral/dental hygiene

Environmental/occupational inhalants

Poor nutrition


More than 70% of squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck are estimated to be avoidable by lifestyle changes, particularly by effective reduction of exposure to well-known risk factors such as tobacco smoking and alcohol drinking.

There is no proven way to completely prevent head and neck cancer, but the risk could potentially be lowered by:

  • Stopping the use of all tobacco products
  • Avoiding alcohol
  • Using sunscreen regularly, including lip balm with an adequate sun protection factor
  • Reducing the risk of HPV infection by receiving the HPV vaccine or by limiting the number of sexual partners, since having many partners increases the risk of HPV infection.
  • Maintaining proper care of dentures

Worldwide an estimated


new cases of head and neck cancer were diagnosed in 2020.*

*Lip and oral cavity, oropharynx, larynx, hypopharynx, nasopharynx and salivary gland cancers

CH-NON-00474, 06/2021