HPV and Oral Cancer: The Connection
With cases of oral cancer, specifically oropharyngeal cancer (the back of the throat), on the rise among those under 40 years of age, we as oral health professionals are trying to get the word out about the various causes of oral cancer and the importance of early detection.
Oral cancer has historically been attributed at the highest rates to smokers. However, with smoking on the decrease, HPV is expected to take over the role as the biggest contributor to certain types of oral cancer (oropharyngeal) in the coming years.
Here are some answers to commonly asked questions about HPV and oral cancer:
- What is HPV? HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) is a very common sexually transmitted infection. Typically HPV goes away on its own without causing any health problems. In fact, most people don’t ever know that they have it, which is also one of the reasons that it spreads so easily. Even if you are not symptomatic, you can still spread HPV.
- How does HPV cause oral cancer? Occasionally, HPV does NOT go away on its own and causes problems down the road. There are specific types of cancer that HPV can lead to. For example, cervical cancer is almost always caused by HPV. Oropharyngeal cancer (the back of the throat, not the main oral cavity) is another type of cancer that can be caused by HPV.
- Why is oral cancer on the rise among younger people? Studies show that most cases of oral cancer among young people are caused by HPV. Therefore, as the incidence of the virus grows, so does the incidence of oral cancer.
- What can I do to protect myself? All girls and boys ages 11-12 years old should be vaccinated against HPV. The vaccine is also approved for other specific groups (check CDC.gov for more information). Those who are outside of the vaccination age group should practice safe sex.
- What about early detection do I need to know? As with many cancers, early detection is the key to a good prognosis. Self-examinations by you and regular examinations by your oral care provider are the most important things you can do to protect yourself.
Please note that this information is intended to inform, not scare. Although oropharyngeal cancers are increasing in incidence, they are still a very small risk in our world. Be informed and be proactive!