To determine the role of familial factors in head and neck cancer, we analysed data from a hospital-based case-control study of squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck in Brazil. There were 754 cases of squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN) and 1,507 age- and gender-matched hospital-based controls with non-malignant diseases. Subjects provided information on the occurrence of cancer in first-degree relatives, as well as about other risk factors, including tobacco and alcohol consumption. Relative risks (RRs) were estimated for developing mouth, pharynx and larynx cancer when cancers in relatives were observed. RRs were adjusted for age, sex, city of admission and alcohol and tobacco consumption. The RR for developing SCCHN if a first-degree relative had cancer at any site was significantly elevated at 1.97. The RR was 3.65 (95% CI: 1.97-6.76) if the relative had head and neck cancer. Significantly elevated risks for developing head and neck cancer were associated with siblings with head and neck cancer (RR = 8.57) and, to a lesser extent, with fathers with head and neck cancer (RR = 2.49). There was no significantly increased risk associated with mothers with head and neck cancer, but these tumours were rare among mothers. Our data show that familial, possibly genetic, factors are important in the aetiology of head and neck cancer.