Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma

Risk Factors

Nasopharyngeal cancer is rare. It most often affects people who are between 30 and 50 years of age. Men are more likely to have nasopharyngeal cancer than women.


People who live in areas of Asia, northern Africa, and the Arctic region, where NPC is common, typically eat diets very high in salt-cured fish and meat. Diet & Prevention tips

Epstein-Barr virus infection (EBV)

Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is common throughout the world. In most cases, this infection causes only infectious mononucleosis, commonly known as "mono." Research has found a complex link between EBV infection and NPC. EBV infection alone is not sufficient to cause NPC, since this cancer is rare and EBV infection is rather common. In patients with a positive EBV blood test at the time of diagnosis, repeat tests after treatment may be used to help detect recurrence of the cancer.

Genetic factor

Just as people have different blood types, they also have different tissue types. For example, donated blood must be tested to ensure the blood type is compatible with the recipient before a transfusion is done. Likewise, tissue types must be considered when organs or tissues are transplanted from a donor to a patient. Recent studies have found that people with certain inherited tissue types are at increased risk of developing NPC.


Physical exam of the throat
An exam in which the doctor feels for swollen lymph nodes in the neck and looks down the throat with a small, long-handled mirror to check for abnormal areas.

A procedure to look inside the nose for abnormal areas. A nasoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted through the nose. Tissue samples may be taken for biopsy.

Neurological exam
A series of questions and tests to check the brain, spinal cord, and nerve function. The exam checks a person’s mental status, coordination, and ability to walk normally, and how well the muscles, senses, and reflexes work. This may also be called a neuro exam or a neurologic exam.

Head and chest x-rays
An x-ray of the skull and organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)
A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).

CT scan (CAT scan)
A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.

Laboratory tests
Medical procedures that test samples of tissue, blood, urine, or other substances in the body. These tests help to diagnose disease, plan and check treatment, or monitor the disease over time.

The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.


EBV infection only rarely results in NPC. Eating a diet high in salt-cured fish and meat seems to increase the ability of EBV to cause NPC. Studies indicate that foods preserved in this way that are cooked at high temperatures may undergo changes that produce chemicals that can damage DNA. The damaged DNA alters the cells' ability to properly regulate growth and replication.

Some studies suggest that inheriting certain tissue types may contribute to a person's risk of developing NPC. Because the substances that determine a person's tissue type play an important role in the function of their immune system, some scientists suspect that an abnormal immune reaction to EBV infection may be involved. The details of how particular tissue types might increase NPC risk remain to be worked out.