For millions of Americans, HPV and oral cancer are a life-threatening combination. With almost 200 different strains of HPV (most of which will not harm your body), 9 are known to cause cancer. One strain, known as HPV 16, is associated with oral cancer. You may not ever know you have the virus, as it doesn’t produce noticeable symptoms. This can be especially dangerous with oral cancers, because unlike oral cancer caused by tobacco, HPV-related oral cancer symptoms are unnoticeable and painless. Protect yourself by learning more about the link between the two.
What Cancers are Related to HPV?
HPV is the leading cause for oropharyngeal cancers, which are found in the very back of the mouth and the part of your throat closest to your mouth. A smaller percentage of HPV and oral cancer cases are found in the front of the mouth and oral cavities. For oropharyngeal cancers, the most likely locations are the base of the tongue, the back of the throat, tonsils and tonsillar crypts, and tonsillar pillars.
What are HPV-Related Oral Cancer Symptoms?
Although oral cancer caused by the HPV infection makes up a small percentage of diagnosed cases, knowing the signs and symptoms can help you stay healthy and protected. Some symptoms mimic the common cold or upper respiratory infection:
- Constant coughing
- Difficulty swallowing
- A persistent sore throat
- Hoarseness that doesn’t go away
- An earache on one side that doesn’t go away after two days
Other signs include pain while you’re chewing food, swelling in your mouth, a mouth ulcer or sore that doesn’t heal within two weeks, or a numb feeling in the mouth or lips. There are no visible oral signs of an HPV infection.
Who is at Risk for Oral Cancer From HPV?
Males and females are both affected by HPV oral cancer diagnoses. White non-smoking males between 35 and 55 are most at risk. A growing population for oral and oropharyngeal cancer is healthy, non-smoking adults between ages 25 and 50. As far as HPV is concerned, about 26 million Americans each day have an oral HPV infection, and more than 2600 are HPV16, the HPV strain most often responsible for oral cancer.
How Can I Prevent HPV-Related Oral Cancer?
The best prevention is to avoid contracting the virus in the first place. The virus infects mucosa areas of the body such as the mouth interior, throat, tongue, tonsils, vagina, cervix, vulva, penis urethra and anus. Sexual contact, including oral, is a leading source of transmission. Practicing safe sex and using protection is one way to minimize risk of contracting the virus.
The HPV vaccine, Gardasil, protects against four strains of the human papillomavirus virus (6, 11, 16, and 18); as HPV 16 is the one associated with oral cancer, receiving the vaccine may help prevent oral cancer caused by HPV. The vaccine is recommended for boys and girls ages 9 through 26, regardless of whether they are sexually active.
Contact Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery of Utah if you’re concerned about unusual changes in your mouth, gums or throat. We offer oral pathology and monitoring for symptoms of HPV and oral cancer.