April is Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month. Head and neck cancers, including mouth and throat, occur in the head and neck region.
You may have heard about the connection between HPV infection and certain types of cervical cancer, but did you know HPV infection is also related to a higher risk of throat and mouth cancer?
To prevent these cancers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all boys and girls be vaccinated against HPV at age 11 or 12 — before exposure to the virus.
HPV is a viral infection that commonly causes skin growths or warts. It's the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S., with more than 42 million people infected.
HPV infection happens when the virus enters your body, usually through a cut, abrasion or small tear in your skin. The virus is transmitted sexually or through skin-to-skin contact. There are more than 100 types of HPV. In most cases, your body's immune system defeats an HPV infection before it creates warts, so it is easy to have HPV but not realize it.
Some types of HPV infection can cause cancer. For example, nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV infection. HPV also can cause throat and mouth cancers, which tend to be less aggressive than those unrelated to HPV.
An HPV infection can infect the mouth and throat, and cause cancer of the oropharynx, which includes the back of the throat, the base of the tongue, and the tonsils. More than 54,000 adults in the U.S. are diagnosed with oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer each year.
Men are twice as likely than women to be diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer, primarily due to habits that increase their risk, such as tobacco use, excessive alcohol use and poor diet. Men also are more likely to be exposed to toxic substances at work.
A challenge in diagnosing throat and mouth cancer is that many symptoms are common to other diseases or conditions, and not specific to cancer. This includes a sore that won't heal, cough, sore throat, ear pain, difficulty swallowing or voice hoarseness. It is easy to believe these symptoms are due to a common cold, seasonal allergies or an overzealous celebration.
Treatment options for oropharyngeal cancer vary, and they are based on many factors, such as the location and stage of your throat or mouth cancer, the type of cells involved, whether the cells show signs of HPV infection, your overall health, and your personal preferences. Your care team will discuss the benefits and risks of each option and work with you to determine the best plan for your case and goals.
Treatments can include:
While there is no proven way to prevent throat and mouth cancers from occurring, you can take these steps to lower your risk:
Talk to a health care professional if you notice common respiratory symptoms that won't go away, such as cough, sore throat or swollen neck glands. — Gregory Jones, M.D., is an ear, nose and throat specialist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Owatonna, Minnesota.
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