Causes of Laryngeal Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on May 26, 2020

Laryngeal cancer is a disease that affects your larynx, or voice box, a small organ in your throat. It helps you to speak, swallow, and breathe.

In laryngeal cancer, cells inside of your larynx grow out of control. Usually, it starts in the thin, flat cells called squamous cells that line the inside of your voice box. They change and become precancerous. Some of these abnormal cells will never turn into cancer. But when they do, they can spread and damage healthy tissues nearby.

What Causes Laryngeal Cancer?

Doctors don’t know the exact cause of the disease. But one possible reason it forms is that some people have certain genes that change, called mutations, at some point in their life. Unlike gene mutations that you’re born with, these mutations happen during your lifetime. They’re called acquired mutations.

You may acquire gene mutations because of certain risk factors or habits. One mutation linked to laryngeal cancer is in a gene called the p16 tumor suppressor gene, but there may be others involved, too.

Some people inherit gene mutations that make it harder for their bodies to break down chemicals that cause cancer, like those in tobacco smoke, but this is very rarely a cause of laryngeal cancer.

Risk Factors

There are some factors that can raise your chances of getting laryngeal cancer. Some are things you can change to lower your risk. Others are things you can’t change.

Tobacco. It’s a major cause of laryngeal cancer. Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes, as well as chewing smokeless tobacco, makes you more likely to have laryngeal cancer and any type of head and neck cancer. The more you smoke, the more your risk goes up. Scientists think that being around secondhand smoke over many years may raise your risk of laryngeal cancer, too, but it’s not certain.

Alcohol. Moderate to heavy drinking -- that’s one or more alcoholic drinks a day -- can also raise your risk.

Smoking and drinking. If you smoke and drink, your risk of laryngeal cancer goes up more.

Other things that could make this type of cancer more likely include:

Poor diet. If you eat a lot of unhealthy food, you’re at higher risk of getting head and neck cancers. People who are heavy drinkers may not get enough nutrients in their diets, so that may be one reason why they’re more likely to get laryngeal cancer. To lower your risk, eat foods with lots of nutrients, such as more fruits and vegetables, and fewer fried or processed foods.

Human papillomavirus (HPV). A throat infection with HPV may cause some head and neck cancers, such as tonsil cancer, but it’s very rarely a cause of laryngeal cancer.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).Stomach acid can creep up into your esophagus and cause heartburn. If you live with it for a long time, it can also lead to some cancers, such as esophageal cancer. Researchers are trying to learn if GERD boosts your laryngeal cancer risk, too.

Workplace chemicals. Some jobs may expose you to chemicals that make laryngeal cancer more likely. People who work in manufacturing roles with wood dust, nickel, sulfuric acid dust, or mustard gas are at higher risk for this type of cancer.

Asbestos. This mineral fiber is used in construction materials as insulation or to prevent fires. It’s also tied to a higher chance of laryngeal cancer.

You’ve had head and neck cancer before. About 25% of people who’ve had it will get it again.

Age. Laryngeal cancer is more common in people over age 55. More than half of those who get the disease are 65 or older.

Sex. Men are more likely to get laryngeal cancer than women.

Race. People who are white or African American are more likely to get laryngeal cancer than people with Latino or Asian backgrounds.

WebMD Medical Reference



National Cancer Institute: “Laryngeal Cancer Treatment (Adult): (PDQ-Patient Version).”

Cleveland Clinic: “Laryngeal Cancer Overview.”

American Cancer Society: “What Are Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancers?” “What Causes Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancers?” “Risk Factors for Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancers,” “Can Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancers Be Prevented?”

International Journal of Cancer: “Smokeless Tobacco and Risk of Head and Neck Cancer: Evidence from a Case-Control Study in New England.”

Environmental Protection Agency: “Learn About Asbestos.”

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