Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can lead to cancers of the mouth and throat — specifically oropharyngeal cancer.
Oropharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer that affects the oropharynx — the back of the throat. This includes the tonsils and the base of the tongue.
According to the
HPV is common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that around
This article explains the link between HPV and oral cancer. It also details the symptoms and risk factors for oral cancer, as well as how effective the HPV vaccine is.
HPV is the
There are more than 100 types of HPV, and around 40 of them can spread to the genitals, mouth, or throat through direct sexual contact.
Researchers believe high risk types of HPV are causing an increase in the rate of oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), which is the second most common type of skin cancer. These types of HPV can also cause cancers of the cervix and anus.
A 2019 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Associates reported that oral HPV infections cause oropharyngeal SCC in fewer than 1% of cases. However, doctors do not yet know exactly how the infection develops into cancer.
The CDC estimates that HPV causes
High risk HPV
A person can get HPV if they have vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus. Vaginal and anal sex are the
A person can get HPV from having only one or multiple sexual partners, and symptoms may not show up for years after the initial infection.
Often, doctors find HPV-related cancer in young people who have never used tobacco or alcohol. People with this type of cancer tend to have a better outlook than those with cancer not linked to HPV. The
Some people with oropharyngeal cancer do not have any symptoms. Others
- a sore throat or irritation that does not go away
- red or white patches or pain, tenderness, or numbness in the mouth or lips
- lumps, thickening, rough spots, or crusty or worn-away areas in the mouth
- problems with chewing, swallowing, speaking, or moving the jaw or tongue
- hoarseness or a change in voice
- unexplained weight loss
According to the
HPV rarely causes oral cavity cancer, which can affect the:
- inside lining of the lips and cheeks, known as the buccal mucosa
- front two-thirds of the tongue
- floor of the mouth under the tongue
- roof of the mouth, or hard palate
- area behind the wisdom teeth, known as the retromolar trigone
Other types of oral cancer include:
- Verrucous carcinoma: This is a rare type of squamous cell cancer most commonly found in the gums and cheeks. It grows slowly and rarely spreads.
- Minor salivary gland cancers: These types of cancer start in the glands within the mouth and throat lining.
- Lymphoma: This starts in the tonsils and the base of the tongue, both of which contain lymphoid tissue, which is part of the immune system.
The CDC also recommends the vaccine for anyone up to age 26 who is not already vaccinated. Some people aged 27–45 may also decide to take the vaccine after discussing the potential risks and benefits with their doctor.
Because the HPV vaccine protects people from the types of HPV that can cause oropharyngeal cancer, it may also protect them from these types of cancer.
It is important for a person to consult a doctor if they have concerns about any possible symptoms of oral cancer.
Treatment for oropharyngeal cancer
- Radiation therapy: For stage 1 and 2 HPV-positive cancer, a person is likely to receive radiation therapy aimed at the cancer and the lymph nodes in the neck. Alternatively, they may have surgery to remove the main tumor and the lymph nodes of the neck. In some cases, doctors may also recommend chemoradiation, which is a mix of chemotherapy and radiation.
- Chemoradiation: Larger cancers in the back of the tongue, the soft palate, or the tonsils that have spread into nearby tissues or lymph nodes in the neck (most stage 1, 2, and 3 HPV-positive cancers) require treatment with chemoradiation. Some cases may be suitable for surgery.
- Other treatments: Doctors usually treat stage 4 HPV-positive cancer that has spread to other parts of the body with either chemotherapy or cetuximab, a type of monoclonal antibody treatment. Alternatively, they may use a combination of the two. Some people might also receive immunotherapy or radiation therapy, depending on their symptoms.
If oropharyngeal cancer keeps coming back, doctors treat it according to its location and the size of the tumor.
A person can avoid HPV and any resulting oropharyngeal cancer by correctly using condoms and dental dams during sex. These barrier methods
Because smoking and alcohol use may contribute to HPV’s development into cancer, a person can also reduce their risk by avoiding alcohol and tobacco products and passive smoke exposure.
HPV is the most common STI in the U.S. Researchers think that high risk types of HPV are responsible for the rising rate of oropharyngeal cancer. Other factors, such as smoking and alcohol use, may increase the chance that HPV will progress to cancer.
The CDC recommends using condoms and dental dams during sex, avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol use, and getting the HPV vaccine to prevent HPV and any resulting oropharyngeal cancer.