Risk Factors

Although mouth cancer can affect anybody, and is strongly associated with the age and gender of a person, around 91% of all diagnoses are linked to lifestyle.  This means that by amending our lifestyle choices, we can help cut the chances of developing mouth cancer.  Here are the risk factors that have been shown to play a major role in contracting the disease.


smoking-iconThe health implications of smoking are well documented, but mouth cancer often gets overlooked.  The majority of mouth cancer cases continue to be as result of smoking and tobacco use.  Around one in five people in the UK currently smoke, which accounts for roughly two in every three mouth cancer cases.

There are thousands of chemicals contained in a single cigarette, and their point of entry is the mouth.  Smoking helps to transforms saliva into a deadly cocktail that damages cells in the mouth and can turn them cancerous.

The danger is that smokers are three time more likely than non-smokers to develop mouth cancer and seven times more likely to be diagnosed with throat cancer, while a morning cigarette has been shown to double those chances further.  But it is never too late to make a difference….

Research has shown that ex-smokers reduce their risk of mouth cancer by more than a third.  And with around two thirds of smokers admitting they would like to kick the habit, Mouth Cancer Action Month is the perfect time to do just that.


drinking-iconDrinking alcohol to excess is another major risk factor linked with mouth cancer – associated with around a third of all cases.  The key is the excess part.  An occasional glass of wine here and there is considered much better than drinking the bottle in a single evening.  Moderation really is important.

The danger group are those who smoke and drink alcohol to excess.  These people increase their risk of mouth cancer by up to 30 times.  For those who do smoke and drink, please be aware of this risk.  It is especially important that this group visits the dentist regularly so they can examine your mouth.

If you need a guide on what the recommended units of alcohol per day are, click here.

Mouth cancer risk is not associated with use of alcohol-containing mouthwash.

The Human papillomavirus

hpv-iconThere’s no easy way to say this, but oral sex is becoming a problem.  In fact, many experts believe the Human papillomavirus (HPV), transmitted mostly through oral sex, will overtake tobacco use as the main cause of mouth cancer within the next decade.

HPV is very common and almost every sexually-active person will get HPV at some time in their lives. Most people with HPV never develop symptoms or health problems.  90% of HPV infections go away by themselves within two years and don’t affect the health of most people.  But sometimes HPV infections persist and may cause a variety of serious problems. Including:

  • Abnormal tissue growth and other changes to cells in some parts of the body, which can cause cancer.
  • Genital warts, which is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the UK.

Limiting the number of partners you have and practising safe sex will reduce the risk.

Despite HPV’s impact on the health of both sexes, the UK’s HPV immunisation programme is exclusively for females due to its risk with cervical cancer.  In the UK, girls aged 12/13 have been vaccinated routinely, mostly via a school-based programme, since 2008.  We are working hard, alongside other bodies and associations to readdress this inequality and fight for a gender-neutral vaccination.

You can find out more about HPV and the gender-neutral vaccination campaign at www.hpvaction.org



Up to half of all mouth cancer cases are partly due to poor diet.  A diet rich in fruit and vegetables will not only keep your body fit and healthy, it will help to reduce the risk of mouth cancer.

Non-starchy vegetables and fruits (not salted or pickled), and foods containing carotenoids, can actually help to reduce mouth cancer risk.  Mouth cancer risk is lower in people with the highest intake of the following foods, versus those with the lowest intake, research has shown have shown:

  • Fruit – 48% lower risk.
  • Vegetables – 34% lower risk.
  • Vitamin C supplements – 24% lower risk (versus never-users).
  • Calcium supplements – 36% lower risk (versus never-users).
  • Caffeinated coffee – 39% lower risk in 4 cups/day (versus non-drinkers).
  • Green tea – 20% lower risk.

Chewing or smokeless tobacco

Although some believe this type of tobacco is safer than smoking, the reality is that it is much more dangerous. Like cigarettes, smokeless tobacco is a serious risk to a person’s health. Both contain nicotine, which is a very addictive drug.  In fact, there is twice as much nicotine in smokeless tobacco as in an average cigarette. As well as increasing the risk of mouth cancer by up to four times, it causes problems for the heart by tightening blood vessels and raising blood pressure.  One can of chewing tobacco can release as much nicotine into your body as 60 cigarettes.


Second-hand or environmental tobacco smoke has been named a probable cause of mouth cancer.  Mouth cancer risk is 87% higher in those who have never smoked and that have been exposed to tobacco smoke at home or work, compared with unexposed non-smokers.  Studies have also shown that the risk of mouth cancer is more than twice as high in people who have never smoked exposed to second-hand smoke at home or work for 15 years or more, compared with unexposed never-smokers.

Related topics:

What is mouth cancer?    What are the signs and symptoms?    What is the impact of mouth cancer?    Mouth cancer voices