Many people have heard of HPV, but what exactly is it? HPV is a common infection that will affect nearly all men and women during their lives, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. We’re here to walk you through what HPV is and how it connects to cancer.
Oral HPV and Oropharyngeal Cancer
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus that spreads from having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with a carrier. HPV gets its name from the growth it can cause called a papilloma, or wart. These warts are not cancer and are different from other mouth sores but can be a symptom of HPV infection.
Most infections will resolve themselves within two years, and many might not even be aware they were infected with HPV. Despite this, it’s still essential to take this risk seriously, as HPV causes oral symptoms and increases your risk of developing some types of cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, there are over 150 types of HPV, but oropharyngeal cancer is caused by HPV16. Most people with HPV develop no symptoms, and only a small percentage of cases will progress to oropharyngeal cancer. You’re making a smart decision to inform yourself of the virus and its risks.
Together with the base of your tongue and tonsils, the back of your throat is known as the oropharynx. Cancers affecting this area are called oropharyngeal cancer. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 70% of cases are caused by HPV. The other most likely causes of this cancer are alcohol and tobacco use.
Various factors increase your chance of developing oropharyngeal cancer. While all these elements raise your probability of developing health issues, none of them is a guarantee. We recommend focusing on what you can control with your behavior and habits. You’re doing a great job preparing yourself by reading up on the causes.
Risk factors associated with oropharyngeal cancer:
- HPV infection
- Use of smoking and tobacco products
- Consumption of alcohol
- Chewing of betel quid (a South Asian mix of areca nut, spices, and lime)
- Advanced age
- Poor nutrition
- Lowered immune system
It’s important to remember that none of these symptoms indicate cancer on their own and that some people present without any symptoms at all. Just because you have dry mouth or a sore throat does not mean you have HPV, and they’re even less likely to indicate cancer.
Symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer include:
- Swallowing pain
- A hoarse voice or sore throat that won’t go away
- Swelling in the lymph nodes
- Weight loss without other clear explanation
- Swelling or pain in the jaw
- A patch on your tonsils red or white in color
- A lump on the neck or cheek
If you exhibit any troubling symptoms, we recommend scheduling an appointment with a medical professional.
The HPV vaccine protects against a virus that can cause oropharyngeal and other types of cancer. The CDC recommends the HPV vaccine for everyone up to age 26. However, a medical professional may recommend it to some up to age 45.
It’s best to get vaccinated before possible exposure to the virus. Ideally, children should receive it between the ages of 11-12. Vaccines can be frightening for some, so it’s a good idea to consult a medical health professional regarding their safety and efficacy.
Not all cancer can be prevented. Fortunately, according to the American Cancer Society, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of oropharyngeal cancer:
- Regular dental visits for checkups or oral screenings
- Get vaccinated against HPV
- Practice safe sex, using condoms or dental dams
- Avoid smoking and tobacco products
- Limit alcohol consumption
- Maintain a healthy diet
Only a doctor or medical team can only decide the correct treatment for your oropharyngeal cancer. Each situation is unique to the individual, so it’s best to leave diagnosis and treatment up to the pros.
Your cancer may require therapies to be used on their own or together, according to the American Cancer Society. We recommend taking careful consideration of treatment options and comparing the pros to the cons. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and consider bringing a friend or family member to help you write down any provided information.
Therapies to treat oropharyngeal cancer may include:
- Surgery for removal
- Radiation or chemotherapy
- Treatment using targeted drugs
- Immunotherapy (medicines to strengthen your immune system to fight cancer)
- Palliative treatment to help maintain your quality of life
It can be stressful to schedule an appointment with a medical professional, but it’s the smart choice. You can take comfort in the fact that various specialized practitioners are available to diagnose, treat, and manage any symptoms you may have. You’ve done a fantastic job informing yourself on HPV and preparing yourself to prevent or treat cancer.
This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.