Human papillomavirus (HPV) is known for causing cervical cancer, but in recent years it’s the association between this common sexually transmitted infection and oropharyngeal cancer that has made headlines.
For Oral Cancer Awareness Month this month, we decided to explore the link between HPV and cancers of the oropharynx, the middle part of the throat including the soft palate, the base of the tongue and the tonsils.
First, here are the basics about HPV:
- There are more than 100 types of HPV.
- More than 40 types infect the genital areas.
- HPV is passed on through skin-to-skin contact.
- Sexual contact with an infected partner is the most common way the virus is spread.
- About 90 percent of HPV infections clear up by themselves within two years.
- Some HPV infections can persist and cause serious health problems.
HPV is responsible for virtually all cases of cervical cancer. But by 2020, HPV is projected to cause more cases of oropharyngeal cancers than cervical cancers in the United States, according to research in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
Dr. Bradley Mons, Head and Neck Surgeon at our hospital in Tulsa, says HPV is mostly associated with throat cancer. The base of tongue, tonsils and adenoids are common locations for HPV-related cancers, says Mons, noting that oral cancers due to tobacco use have decreased slightly.
Oral cancers linked to HPV affect men more than women and have increased three-fold over the past 20 years. According to the American Association for Cancer Research, studies of oropharyngeal tumor tissue from the late 1980s found that 20 percent were HPV-positive. Today, an estimated 60 percent of oral cancer patients have HPV.
In response to our questions about oral cancer and HPV, Dr. Mons offered insight on screening, diagnosis and prevention:
Are there screening tests to detect HPV infections in the throat, tonsils and base of the tongue?
There are no current routine laboratory tests to screen HPV in the head and neck. However, a thorough head and neck examination by a physician once a year can detect early changes. You also can ask your dentist for a screening exam during a routine visit.
What diagnostic tests are used to detect oral cancer?
Examination is the appropriate detection method. CT scans and MRIs may be used for staging but cannot actually detect the cancer. Any non-healing wound or neck mass that persists longer than a week should be evaluated for biopsy, which will allow for earlier detection. Determining if oral cancer is associated with HPV also requires a biopsy, which would be examined for the presence of HPV DNA. Check with your doctor because not all hospitals routinely screen for HPV.
How can people protect themselves from oral HPV infections and oral cancer?
The best protection against HPV is to abstain from sexual activity or practice safe sex, as HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. It is still too early to determine if the HPV vaccine will reduce HPV-related cancer in the head and neck. Another way to reduce the risk of oral cancer is to refrain from tobacco and alcohol use.
What message would you like to convey about HPV and oral cancer?
Early detection can help improve survival. If you have a spot on your tongue or throat, a sore throat or any other symptom that does not resolve within a week, please see your physician. Survival rates can be as high as 90 percent if cancer is treated in its early stage.
Learn more about how oral cancers are treated.