Heartburn is experienced by one in 10 Americans at least once a week, but increasingly frequent heartburns could mean you're at a greater risk for developing throat and vocal cord cancer, a new study finds.

"Previous studies examining gastric reflux and cancers of the head and neck have generated mixed results," said Scott M. Langevin, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral research fellow at Brown University. "Most of those studies had either few numbers of cases or they were not adjusted for confounding factors. Ours strongly suggests gastric reflux, which causes frequent heartburn, is an independent risk factor for cancers of the pharynx (throat) and larynx (vocal cord)."

The large, population-based study found that frequent heartburns correlated high with cancers to the throat and vocal cord in nonsmokers and nondrinkers. But using antacids in place of prescription heartburn medication reduces the risk - this indicates that it may be the treatment, and not heartburn itself, that increases a person's risk for throat and vocal cord cancer.

Researchers recruited 631 patients in Boston who had throat or vocal cord cancers, while the control group included 1,234 participants who had not record of cancer. They found that the participants who neither smoked nor drank heavily but experienced frequent heartburns had a 78 percent increased risk for throat cancer. All participants had to undergo human papillomavirus 16 (HPV 16) infection tests, because some head and neck cancers are caused by this virus. The participants also had to take a survey that asked them about their heartburn and family history, smoking or drinking habits, and took into account their sociodemographic backgrounds.

"Additional studies are needed to validate the chemopreventive effects of antacids among patients with frequent heartburn," Langevin said. "The identification of gastric reflux as a risk factor for throat and vocal cord cancers, however, may have implications in terms of risk stratification and identification of high-risk patients."

According to the National Cancer Institute, 12,260 new cases of laryngeal cancer and 13,930 cases of pharyngeal cancer will be diagnosed in the United States this year, while an estimated 6,000 people will die from it.

The study was published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, a journal of the American association for Cancer Research.

Source: Langevin SM, Michaud DS, Marsit CJ. Gastric Reflux Is an Independent Risk Factor for Laryngopharyngeal Carcinoma. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. 2013.