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Men have double the risk of head and neck cancers – spot the signs

How to take action to reduce your risk of head and neck cancer.

Published: 10 December 2019

If you think men only need to look below the waist when it comes to spotting cancer, think again: Head and neck cancers affect twice as many men as women.

Men at risk - Shocking stats

Men in Ireland have double the risk of getting a head and neck cancer compared to women. Fortunately, these cancers aren’t common and they're some of the most preventable - so you can take action to reduce the risk.

The latest figures from the National Cancer Registry Ireland show that, compared to women:

  • Men’s rate of mouth and pharynx (upper throat) cancers was 2.5 times higher
  • Men’s rate of tongue cancer was 5 times higher
  • Men’s rate of cancer of the larynx (voice box) and upper pharynx (hypopharynx) was nearly 6 times higher
  • Men’s rate of lip cancer was 11 times higher

Why men?

The simple answer is that men tend to smoke more and drink more alcohol than women, which are the main causes of mouth, head and neck cancers.

More than 7 in 10 cancers of the head and neck are due to alcohol and smoking

People who drink 2 or more standard drinks per day (that's about 1 pint) are 3 times more likely to be diagnosed with these cancers compared with those who don't drink. The more you drink, the greater the risk of developing mouth, head or neck cancer.

The risk of mouth, head and neck cancers increases with the length of time a person has been smoking and with the number of cigarettes smoked. 

If you smoke and drink the risk is even greater:  Alcohol helps the chemicals in smoke to get through the lining of your mouth and throat.  Alcohol raises cancer risk by increasing the cancer-causing effect of tobacco.

The good news

Most head and neck cancers could be prevented by lifestyle changes like stopping smoking and avoiding alcohol. And it’s never too late to make a change.

If you stop smoking, your risk gets lower and lower the longer you stay away from tobacco.

 head and neck graphic

Protect yourself - Top tips for men

  • Don't smoke. If you do smoke, plan to quit. Visit for support.
  • Drink no more than 2 standard drinks a day for men and have at least 2-3 alcohol-free days. 17 standard drinks a week is the recommended maximum for men.
  • Use a lip balm that contains sun block
  • Eat a healthy diet high in fruit and vegetables
  • If you notice any changes in your mouth, throat or neck which last for more than 3 weeks visit your dentist or doctor straight away (including a sore/ulcer, white/red patches, lump, persistent sore/hoarse throat)
  • Get any unusual changes in your head, neck and mouth area checked with your GP or dentist

How to spot head and neck cancer

Early detection improves treatment and outcomes. The signs vary from cancer to cancer, but some of the common ones to look out for are:

  • A sore or ulcer in your mouth that doesn't heal within 3 weeks
  • Difficulty or pain when chewing or swallowing
  • Sore throat, difficulty speaking, or having a hoarse voice
  • An unexplained loose tooth
  • A swelling or lump in the mouth or neck
  • Pain in the face or jaw
  • Earache, ringing in the ear or hearing problems
  • Numbness of the tongue or face
  • Blocked or bleeding nose
  • White or red patches in the mouth lining or on the tongue that don’t go away within 3 weeks.

All cancer is easier to treat and cure if it’s dealt with early. Know the warning signs and get anything unusual checked out.

Factfile: What are head and neck cancers?

head and neck cancer     

‘Head and neck cancer’ is used to describe a group of cancers that affect the mouth, nose, throat (pharynx) and surrounding areas. For example, cancer of the mouth, cancer of the larynx (voice box) and cancer of the tongue.

Find out more

More on mouth, head and neck cancers: Irish Cancer Society

More on giving up smoking:

Tips on cutting down on alcohol

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