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HPV and Head and Neck Cancer: What’s the Link?


Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

These days, a growing number of people are aware that the human papilloma virus (HPV) can cause cervical cancer. Yet, fewer understand that there’s also a link between oral cancer and HPV. Specifically, this infection is transmitted through normal sexual interactions, and increases the risk of oropharyngeal cancers, or cancers that develop in back of the throat.

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) Types and Strains

There are more than 100 related strains of HPV, which can affect different parts of the body. For example, some forms of HPV can cause warts on the hands, feet, or genitals, while others may cancer of the cervix, penis, or anus and still others lie dormant in the body without causing symptoms. This virus is incredibly common; an estimated 50 percent of sexually active people will become infected with it at some point in their lives.

HPV lives in the epithelial cells found in the skin, on the genitals, and in the mouth and throat. It can create unhealthy changes to these cells, setting the stage for cancer. In the case of oral cancer and HPV, it can take years for cancer to develop. It’s not yet clear whether HPV alone can cause oropharyngeal cancer or if it interacts with other risk factors such as alcohol and tobacco use. Want to know more? Here are three frequently asked questions about the link between oral cancer and HPV.

How Common Is the Link Between Head and Neck Cancer and HPV?

Oropharyngeal cancer is commonly associated with human papillomavirus (HPV), usually type 16 – there are over 100 subtypes of HPV, but only a few are associated with cancers. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about one percent of Americans harbor HPV-16 in the oral cavity, an infection which is nearly always cleared in healthy people and does no harm. However, in a very small proportion of people the virus remains persistent in the throat and is believed to cause about 9,000 cases of oropharyngeal cancer annually.

How Is HPV Transmitted?

It’s still not entirely clear how oral HPV is transmitted. Some studies have shown that the virus can be spread through open-mouth (“French”) kissing and through mouth to genital contact, but others have not.

How Can I Lower My Risk of HPV?

More research is needed on the ways in which health problems caused by oral HPV can be prevented. That said, use of condoms and dental dams may help slow the spread of HPV, although these methods aren’t foolproof. The vaccines currently available prevent the infection by strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer. They may also help protect against oral HPV, but scientists don’t yet know for sure.

Stay up-to-date on the latest developments in the field of cancer research. Visit UPMC Hillman Cancer Center to learn more.

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