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HPV and Oral Cancer

There is a growing body of research that shows an increasing incidence of human papillomavirus-associated cancer in the region of the oropharynx. The oropharynx includes the middle region of the throat, including the tonsils and base of the tongue.

Although the primary risk factors for head and neck cancers remain tobacco use and excessive alcohol consumption, HPV infection is now associated with some 10,000 cases of oropharyngeal cancer diagnosed each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In April 2012, the CDC reported that oropharyngeal cancer is the second most diagnosed of cancers associated with HPV. HPV is commonly transmitted through sexual contact.

Not all types of HPV cause cancer, but 40 known strains of HPV can be transmitted through sexual contact.

According to the CDC, cancers of the head and neck are mostly caused by tobacco and alcohol, but recent studies show that about 60–70 percent of cancers of the oropharynx may be linked to HPV. Many of these may be caused by a combination of tobacco, alcohol, and HPV. Regular dental check-ups that include an examination of the entire head and neck can be beneficial in identifying cancerous and pre-cancerous signs and symptoms.

In its Statement on Human Papillomavirus and Squamous Cell Cancers of the Oropharynx, the ADA Council on Scientific Affairs noted that the FDA approved two HPV vaccines for the prevention of HPV-associated cancers of the cervical, vulvar, vaginal and anal mucosa; however, the vaccines may also be effective in the prevention of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers. More studies are needed to determine if vaccination aids in the prevention of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers. The ADA will continue to provide guidance to the dental profession and public about HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer.

Talk to your dentist or physician if you experience any of these symptoms:

  • persistent sore throat
  • difficulty swallowing
  • hoarseness
  • ear pain
  • enlarged lymph nodes

The following federal agencies can provide more information about HPV infection: