The oropharynx is the middle part of the throat, that is directly behind the mouth.

Learn more with this 3D animation. 
Click here to learn more about the Human papillomavirus (HPV).

What is oropharyngeal cancer?

Cancer occurs when cells become abnormal, grow uncontrollably and have the potential to spread to other parts of the body. These cells build up to form a mass (or lump). 

Cancer that starts anywhere in the oropharynx is called oropharyngeal cancer. Your doctor may also call it by the part it has grown in, like tonsil or tongue base cancer. Most oropharyngeal cancers start in the cells that line the surface of the throat (called squamous cell carcinomas). 

What causes oropharyngeal cancer?

Doctors often can’t explain why a person gets cancer. But we do know what makes some cancers more likely.

The main causes of oropharyngeal cancer are
  • human papillomavirus (HPV) infection (especially HPV types 16 and 18). We now know HPV causes many oropharyngeal cancers. 
  • smoking (cigarettes, cigars or pipes) or using smokeless tobacco (snuff and chewing tobacco). If a person smokes or has smoked in the past, they have a higher risk of getting oropharyngal cancer than someone who does not smoke. 
  • drinking alcohol. If a person drinks a lot of alcohol over many years, they have a higher risk of getting oropharyngeal cancer, especially combined with smoking.