The Connection Between HPV and Head and Neck Cancer

The Connection Between HPV and Head and Neck Cancer

And Why Peo­ple Aren’t Talk­ing About It

When you think of sex­u­al­ly trans­mit­ted infec­tions, you prob­a­bly don’t imme­di­ate­ly think of can­cer. But when it comes to human papil­lo­mavirus (HPV) — the most com­mon sex­u­al­ly trans­mit­ted infec­tion (STI) in the US — can­cer is a seri­ous concern. 

HPV is such a com­mon STI that near­ly all sex­u­al­ly active men and women will get the virus at some point in their lives. While there are effec­tive vac­cines to pre­vent HPV, it’s still eas­i­ly spread through sex­u­al con­tact. What’s more, oral HPV — or HPV that can cause a type of head and neck can­cer called oropha­ryn­geal can­cer — is more com­mon as you get older. 

Source: https://​www​.cdc​.gov/​s​t​d​/​s​t​a​t​i​s​t​i​c​s​/​p​r​e​v​a​l​e​n​c​e​-​2​0​2​0​-​a​t​-​a​-​g​l​a​n​c​e.htm

The con­nec­tion between HPV and head and neck can­cer isn’t always talked about, but their con­nec­tion is sig­nif­i­cant — and it can have a major impact on your well-being. Here’s how.

What Exact­ly is HPV?

Human papil­lo­mavirus (HPV) is a group of over 200 relat­ed virus­es. Some­times, these virus­es are spread through vagi­nal, anal, or oral sex. 

HPV is com­mon. Most peo­ple who are sex­u­al­ly active are infect­ed with HPV with­in a few years of becom­ing sex­u­al­ly active. Any­one can be infect­ed with HPV — regard­less of sex, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, or gen­der identity. 

HPV virus­es are usu­al­ly put into two categories:

  1. Low-risk HPVs, which usu­al­ly don’t cause dis­ease (except for, on occa­sion, gen­i­tal warts)

  2. High-risk HPVs, which can cause many kinds of cancer 

Most of the time, thanks to the hard work of your immune sys­tem as well as the HPV vac­cine, HPV doesn’t cause cancer.

If you are under the age of 45 and haven’t received the com­plete series of Gar­dasil or Gar­dasil 9, sched­ule an appoint­ment with your Duly pri­ma­ry care provider.

How­ev­er, if you have high-risk HPV for a long peri­od of time, that puts you at risk for mul­ti­ple kinds of cancer. 

How is High-RIsk HPV Relat­ed to Can­cer, Includ­ing Head and Neck Cancer?

A long-last­ing HPV infec­tion can infect the cells in your body. Once this hap­pens, it can impact the ways cells talk to one anoth­er, caus­ing them to mul­ti­ply in an uncon­trolled way. If these infect­ed cells aren’t rec­og­nized and destroyed by your immune sys­tem, this can lead to pre­can­cer­ous cells. 

If not treat­ed, pre­can­cer­ous cells can turn into can­cer.

Most of the time, peo­ple think of HPV as the cause of cer­vi­cal can­cer — which can hap­pen if it infects the cells of your cervix. It can also lead to can­cers of the anus, penis, vagi­na, and vul­va if it infects cells in those parts of your body. 

What’s less fre­quent­ly talked about, how­ev­er, is that oral HPV — which is spread through oral sex — can infect the throat and mouth, called the orophar­ynx. This is the part of your throat that includes the back third of your tongue, your soft palate, the back and sides of your throat, and your tonsils. 

This is called oropha­ryn­geal can­cer, which is a type of head and neck can­cer.

Oropha­ryn­geal can­cers are caused by an HPV infec­tion, and the num­ber is on the rise. Although HPV has been found in oth­er head and neck can­cers, HPV caus­es about 70% of oropha­ryn­geal can­cers in the Unit­ed States. 

Diag­nos­ing and Treat­ing Oropha­ryn­geal Cancer

Pre­vent­ing head and neck can­cer through HPV pre­ven­tion is the goal. But it’s also impor­tant to pay atten­tion to your body for any changes that may sig­nal a problem. 

While oropha­ryn­geal can­cer may not always cause ear­ly symp­toms, it can lead to: 

  • A per­sis­tent sore throat

  • Trou­ble swal­low­ing, mov­ing the tongue, or open­ing the mouth completely

  • Unex­plained weight loss

  • Ear pain

  • A lump in the back of the throat or mouth 

  • A lump on the neck

  • A white patch on the lin­ing of the mouth of the tongue that won’t go away

  • Cough­ing up blood 

Your health­care provider can diag­nose oropha­ryn­geal can­cer using tests like a phys­i­cal exam, a review of your health his­to­ry, and scans, such as a positron emis­sion tomog­ra­phy (PET) scan, com­put­ed tomog­ra­phy (CT) scan, and mag­net­ic res­o­nance imag­ing (MRI). Your PCP may refer you to an oto­laryn­gol­o­gist (ENT) who can do an in-office endoscopy to eval­u­ate fur­ther. They can also do a biop­sy, where they remove a small num­ber of cells and check for signs of can­cer under a microscope.

Treat­ment for oropha­ryn­geal can­cer can include a com­bi­na­tion of surgery, radi­a­tion ther­a­py, chemother­a­py, and tar­get­ed ther­a­py (using drugs and oth­er treat­ments to attack spe­cif­ic can­cer cells). 

Oropha­ryn­geal can­cers that are HPV-pos­i­tive — mean­ing they were caused by an HPV infec­tion — may have a bet­ter chance of com­plete­ly being cured. 

Pre­vent­ing HPV to Pre­vent Head and Neck Cancer

HPV pre­ven­tion is cru­cial for your over­all health, includ­ing pre­vent­ing head and neck can­cer. The first step is get­ting an HPV vac­cine, which is an effec­tive way to pre­vent HPV infec­tions of all kinds. 

The HPV vac­cine pre­vents more than 90% of can­cer caused by HPV. In fact, infec­tions with the kinds of HPV that cause most HPV-relat­ed can­cers and gen­i­tal warts are down near­ly 71% among teen girls since the intro­duc­tion of the vaccine. 

The HPV vac­cine is for both females and males. Chil­dren and teens should get the two-dose vac­ci­na­tion around ages 11 and 12. Adults up to age 45 who weren’t vac­ci­nat­ed as a child should also get the HPV vaccine. 

You can also low­er your risk of oral HPV by using con­doms and den­tal dams as well as lim­it­ing your alco­hol and tobac­co use. 

The HPV vac­cine pre­vents new infec­tions, but it does not treat exist­ing ones. While there are rec­om­men­da­tions to screen for cer­vi­cal can­cer caused by HPV, there are no stan­dard screen­ing tests for oral can­cer. How­ev­er, as a part of a rou­tine den­tal exam, den­tists usu­al­ly look for signs of oropha­ryn­geal cancer. 

While head and neck can­cer may not be your first thought when it comes to HPV, it’s impor­tant to be aware of this risk. By tak­ing steps to pre­vent HPV and keep­ing up with reg­u­lar health exams, includ­ing den­tal vis­its, you can set your­self up for a healthy future. 

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