HPV: Head, Neck and Oral Cancers

The human papilloma virus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States, with 14 million new cases each year. According to the CDC, there are more than 40 types of HPV, but most are cleared from the body by the immune system without causing any health problems. 

Still, some types of HPV affect the mouth and throat. Low-risk strains can cause mouth or throat warts, but high-risk strains are associated with head and neck cancers (also known as oropharyngeal cancers) that affect the mouth, throat, tonsils and back of the tongue. Oral cancer is just one type of head and neck cancer. Data from the CDC indicates that about 7% of people have oral HPV, but only 1% have the type of oral HPV found in head and neck cancers. 

How Common Are HPV-Related Cancers?

HPV is now associated with 9,000 cases of head and neck cancers each year in the United States, according to the CDC. It is four times more common in men than women. 

What Are the Symptoms of HPV-Related Head and Neck Cancers?

Signs and symptoms include:

  • A sore, or soreness or irritation that doesn’t go away
  • Red or white patches, or pain, tenderness, or numbness in mouth or lips
  • Lumps, thickening tissues, rough spots, crusty or eroded areas
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking or moving your jaw or tongue
  • A change in the way your teeth fit together when you close your mouth

Some patients complain of a persistent sore throat, feeling like something is caught in their throat, hoarseness, a change in voice, earaches, pain when swallowing and unexplained weight loss. If you have any of these symptoms, let your dentist know, especially if you’ve had them for two weeks or more.

Where Do HPV-Positive Head and Neck Cancers Develop?

HPV-positive head and neck cancers typically develop in the throat at the back of the tongue and near or in the folds of the tonsils, which makes them difficult to detect. 

Although people with HPV-positive cancers have a lower risk of dying or having recurrence than those with HPV-negative cancers, early diagnosis is the associated with the best outcomes. Regular dental check-ups that include an examination of the entire head and neck can be vital in detecting cancer early. 

Can the HPV Vaccine Help Prevent Head and Neck Cancer?

The CDC recommends that 11 to 12 year old boys and girls get two doses of HPV vaccine to prevent cervical and other less common genital cancers. It is possible that the HPV vaccine might also prevent head and neck cancers – since the vaccine prevents an initial infection with HPV types that can cause head and neck cancers – but the studies currently underway do not yet have sufficient data to say whether the HPV vaccine will prevent these cancers.

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