Updated March 2021
You may know that the human papilloma virus (HPV) can cause cervical cancer. But did you know that HPV is a major reason for the rise in cases of head and neck cancers?
These cancers, known as oropharyngeal cancers, develop in the back of the throat. Tumors can grow on the tonsils, soft palate, or base of the tongue. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that HPV causes about 70% of oropharyngeal cancers.
Here’s what you need to know about HPV and head and neck cancer.
Get the Facts About HPV
Out of 100 types of HPV, about 40 spread through direct sexual contact. This includes the HPV viruses that cause oropharyngeal cancer, reports the CDC. Oral sex is the main way HPV spreads to the mouth, but doctors believe the virus may spread in other ways, too.
Many people develop oral HPV at some point during their lives without even knowing it. The immune system usually rids the body of HPV within a year or two with no lasting damage. But HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers can develop years later in a small number of people, usually those 50 and over.
The CDC estimates that about 3,500 women in the United States receive a new diagnosis of an HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer each year. For men in the U.S., that number is about 16,200 cases each year.
These numbers represent an increase in HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers compared with previous decades. Meanwhile, the National Cancer Institute reports that the number of oropharyngeal cancer cases linked to traditional causes like tobacco and alcohol has decreased.
When to See Your Doctor or Dentist
It’s important to know the symptoms of head and neck cancer, especially if you are or have been sexually active. Symptoms include:
- Trouble hearing, breathing, or speaking
- A lump anywhere on your head, neck, or inside your mouth
- Chewing or swallowing problems
- Feeling that something is stuck in your throat
- A sore throat that lasts longer than 7 to 10 days
- Pain or ringing in the ears
If you have any of these symptoms, see your primary care doctor or dentist right away. They will perform a physical exam. They will also order imaging tests if they find any concerning lumps and refer you to a specialist if needed.
Can Vaccination Help?
The HPV vaccine prevents cervical cancer in women who receive the vaccine before adulthood.
Scientists developed the vaccine to work against several HPV subtypes. This includes HPV subtypes 16 and 18, which cause 70% of cervical cancers. HPV subtype 16 also causes most oropharyngeal cancers, and all the available vaccines work against both subtypes.
The HPV vaccine works best before a person ever has the chance to contract the HPV virus. That’s why current CDC recommendations include giving the HPV vaccine to 11- and 12-year-old girls and boys. The agency says that unvaccinated people up to age 26 should receive the vaccine, but the HPV vaccine is approved for use to age 45 in the U.S.
If you’re an adult age 27 to 45 who has already had a high risk HPV infection, your doctor may recommend that you get vaccinated against HPV. Doing so might prevent future infections.
Looking to the Future
While the HPV vaccine prevents new HPV infections, it can’t treat existing infections or diseases. That means the vaccine can’t help the people aged 50 or older who are most at risk for developing oropharyngeal cancer today. But thanks to vaccination, young people who receive the HPV vaccine face a much lower risk of oropharyngeal cancer.
UPMC researchers continue to investigate ways to prevent HPV-associated cancers. Stay up to date on the latest developments in the field of cancer research. Visit UPMC Hillman Cancer Center to learn more.