Oral HPV and Oropharyngeal Cancer

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Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a commonplace sexually transmitted infection, with approximately 14 million new cases each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HPV can be found in the genital area, in addition to the mouth and throat. Occasionally these viruses cause benign warts, though usually HPV infections remain undetected and resolve without any complications. But you should know that there is a connection between a certain type of oral HPV and oral cancer.

HPV and Oropharyngeal Cancer

Oral cancer affecting the back area of the mouth, tonsils and throat is called oropharyngeal cancer, and according to the CDC, 72 percent of the cancers in the back of the throat involve oral HPV. A recent study conducted by the National Cancer Institute shows that the particular strain of the virus most closely linked with oropharyngeal cancer is HPV 16. And while 2,600 Americans may be infected with HPV 16, based on The Oral Cancer Foundation's assessments, most people will not develop cancer due to their own immune response.

Oropharyngeal Cancer Risks

Even though your chances of developing oropharyngeal cancer are slim, the number of these oral HPV-associated cancers has been rising. Caucasian, non-smoking men between the ages of 35 and 55 having the highest risk. In fact, males in this category have a 4 to 1 risk over females. A weakened immune system, due to diseases such HIV/AIDS or medications given after organ transplants, may also increase the risk, as well as a number of sexual partners and engaging in oral sex. The American Cancer Society says that smoking may increase the risk of oral HPV infection.

Signs of Oropharyngeal Cancer

Oropharyngeal cancers linked to HPV 16 are harder to detect than oral cancers caused by tobacco because symptoms are often understated, painless and not always apparent to you or to your doctor or dentist. Routine visual and tactile oral cancer screenings are the most effective means in catching oral cancer in its early stages.

If you ever have any of the following symptoms that don't go away within two to three weeks, see your doctor or dentist right away:

  • A lasting sore throat or a swollen but painless tonsil (tonsils should look symmetrical)
  • Constant coughing or a hoarse voice
  • Pain when chewing or swallowing or a feeling that food is sticking in your throat when swallowing
  • An earache that is on one side, persisting for more than a few days
  • Noticeable but painless lump on the outside of your neck that has remained for more than two weeks
  • Numbness anywhere in the mouth or lips
  • A mouth sore that has remained for two to three weeks
  • Discoloration (red, white or black) on the soft tissues in the mouth

Treatment Options

When diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer, there are numerous treatment options your doctor will discuss with you. Most likely, you'll work with a team of health care professionals like an ear, nose and throat doctor, an oral surgeon, a radiation oncologist, or medical oncologist. Nutrition specialists, nurses, social workers and speech therapists may also help with your care.

Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and targeted therapy are all possible treatment options, but the American Cancer Society recommends getting a second opinion and then working with your health care team before making a treatment decision.

HPV Vaccine

Today, vaccines are available that guard against certain types of HPV to help prevent cervical and other cancers around the genital area, as well as oropharyngeal cancers and genital warts. The CDC recommends that all preteens, both girls and boys, be vaccinated before age 13. Women can receive the vaccine through age 26 and men up to age 21. Unless patients have a weakened immune system, 26 is the maximum age.

Even though many sexually active adults will contract some type of HPV or oral HPV without any health problems, it's still important to have your children vaccinated, visit the dentist regularly for routine cancer screenings, avoid smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, and recognize the signs of oral cancer. Call a doctor or dentist if any symptoms persist.