Reducing your risk for oropharyngeal cancer

You may lower your risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer by doing the following.

Get vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV)

HPV can infect the oropharynx, especially if you have oral sex and multiple sexual partners. The 3 HPV vaccines available in Canada are Gardasil, Cervarix and Gardasil 9. These vaccines help protect against infection with HPV-16 and HPV-18, the 2 types of HPV linked with different types of cancer, including oropharyngeal cancer. Gardasil 9 also protects against 5 other types of HPV that can cause cancer.

These vaccines help lower the risk of HPV-related cancers, like cervical cancer. Researchers are studying them to find out if they also help lower the risk for oropharyngeal cancer.

Get vaccinated or have your children vaccinated through school-based programs where available. If you are not eligible for a free vaccination, talk to your doctor about which vaccine is right for you and when you should have it.

Avoid getting HPV

The only sure way to prevent an HPV infection is to completely avoid any genital contact with another person. If you are young, delay having sex. If you are sexually active, you can lower your risk by:

  • having as few sexual partners as possible
  • being in a monogamous relationship with someone who hasn’t had a lot of sexual partners
  • using a condom

Using a condom can lower the risk of an HPV infection if the condom is put on before skin-to-skin sexual contact. But areas not covered by a condom still allow some skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity. So using condoms will lower the risk of HPV an infection but not eliminate it.

Be a non-smoker, and avoid second-hand smoke and smokeless tobacco

Avoiding tobacco in any form is an effective way to prevent oropharyngeal cancer. This includes cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and betel quid with tobacco.

Don’t start using tobacco in any form. If you currently use tobacco, get help to quit. Quitting lowers your risk for oropharyngeal cancer. Former tobacco users have a lower risk than current users. The risk of cancer decreases with the number of years since you quit.

Limit the amount of alcohol you drink

Drinking alcohol can increase your risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer. If you choose to drink alcohol, keep it to less than 1 drink per day for women and less than 2 drinks per day for men. The less you drink, the more you lower your risk.

Drinking alcohol together with smoking tobacco increases the risk for oropharyngeal and other head and neck cancers more than either one alone.

Eat vegetables and fruit

Some studies show that eating a diet high in vegetables and fruit may offer some protection against oropharyngeal cancer. Vegetables and fruit play a key role in a healthy diet. Eat a variety of vegetables and fruit every day.

Find out if you’re at high risk for oropharyngeal cancer

Some people can have a higher than average risk for oropharyngeal cancer. Talk to your doctor about your risk. If you are at higher than average risk, you may need to visit your doctor more often to check for oropharyngeal cancer. Your doctor will recommend what tests you should have and how often you should have them.

More information about preventing cancer

Learn what you can do to prevent cancer.

Expert review and references

  • American Cancer Society. Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer. 2014:
  • Brenna, P., Mucci, L. and Adami, H. . Oral and pharyngeal cancer. Adami, H.-O., Hunter, D., & Trichopoulos, D. Textbook of Cancer Epidemiology. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2008: 7:pp155-174.
  • Chiesa F, Ostuni A, Grigolato R, Calabrese L, Anasarin M . Head and neck cancer prevention. Bernier J (ed.). Head and Neck Cancer: Multimodality Management. Springer; 2016: 2: 59-76.
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Volume 100E: Personal Habits and Indoor Combustions. 2012: