• Cancer

    HPV infection may cause throat, mouth cancer

3D illustration of the human papillomavirus (HPV).
3D illustration of the human papillomavirus (HPV).

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.

What is HPV?

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.

The HPV-cancer connection

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 medical illustration of HPV and throat cancer

The nonspecific symptoms of throat and mouth cancer

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.

Throat and mouth cancer treatment options

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:

  • Radiation therapy
  • Surgery to remove cancer that has not spread to other areas
  • Surgery to remove part of your throat, voice box or lymph nodes
  • Chemotherapy
  • Drug therapy
  • Immunotherapy

Preventing throat and mouth cancer

While there is no proven way to prevent throat and mouth cancers from occurring, you can take these steps to lower your risk:

  • Get vaccinated for HPV.
    The CDC found that more than 90% of cancers caused by HPV could be prevented by vaccination. The CDC now recommends that all 11- and 12-year-olds receive two doses of HPV vaccine at least six months apart. Teens and young adults up to age 26 also can be vaccinated. Some adults 27 to 45 years old may decide to get the HPV vaccine based on a discussion with their health care team. If you cannot get vaccinated for HPV, you can lower your risk of HPV infection by limiting your number of sexual partners and using a condom or dental dam every time you have sex.
  • Don't smoke or use tobacco.
    If you smoke or use smokeless tobacco, quit. It can be challenging to stop, so talk with your health care team about smoking cessation strategies, such as medication, counseling and nicotine replacement products.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all.
    If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink per day for women and two for men.
  • Eat a diet full of fruits and vegetables.
    The vitamins and antioxidants in fruits and vegetables may reduce your risk of throat cancer. Eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.
  • Use a respirator if around hazardous chemicals.
    Lower your exposure to chemicals by using a respirator and other personal protective equipment approved by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

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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