HPV and Oropharyngeal (Throat) Cancer


This diagram shows the oropharynx and oral cavity. The buccal mucosa, lips and labial mucosa are shown in the oral cavity, along with the front two-thirds of the tongue, the gingiva, hard palate, floor of the mouth, and retromolar pad. The lingual and palatine tonsils, soft palate, posterior pharyngeal wall, and back one-third of the tongue are shown in the oropharynx.


What is Human Papillomavirus (HPV)?

HPV can be responsible for a variety of health issues, from warts to cancer. There are more cases of HPV in the United States than any other sexually transmitted infection. There are over 100 types of HPV, about 40 of which spread via sexual contact of the genitals as well as the throat and mouth. Oral sex can transmit oral HPV and there are other ways to spread it also.

A lot of people have been exposed to oral HPV at one time or another. In fact, around 10% of men and 3.6% of women carry oral HPV and the rate of infection increases with age. Although HPV typically takes a year or two to fully clear, it can persist for longer in some patients.

When HPV infects the throat and mouth, it can cause oropharynx cancer, which refers to the base of the tongue, tonsils and back of the throat. This type of cancer is known as oropharyngeal cancer, and it is believed that HPV is behind some 70% of all oropharyngeal cancer cases in the United States.

Typically it will take years for HPV to turn into cancer, and it is not clear whether just having HPV leads to this type of cancer or whether additional factors, like chewing tobacco or smoking, react with the HPV to cause it. HPV is not thought to cause other neck and head cancers, such as those in the nose, lip, salivary glands, mouth, or larynx.

Oropharyngeal Cancer Symptoms

Symptoms might include earache, persistent sore throat, pain when swallowing, hoarseness, unexplained weight loss, and swollen lymph nodes. Some patients do not have any symptoms. Those with worrying symptoms are encouraged to see their doctor as soon as possible.

Does the HPV Vaccine Prevent Oropharyngeal Cancer?

This vaccine was developed to help prevent reproductive system cancers including cervical cancer. It protects against varieties of HPV which can lead to oropharyngeal cancers, so it is believed to help prevent those.

The HPV vaccination is recommended for 11 and 12-year olds, according to the CDC, and it is also recommended for anyone 26 years or younger who has not already been vaccinated. It is not recommended for those over the age of 26, although some people between the ages of 27 and 45 might decide to get vaccinated after talking to their doctor about new HPV infection risks and the benefits of this vaccine. The reason it is best to be vaccinated while young is that by their mid-20s, most people will already have been exposed to HPV.

Although the vaccination does prevent new infections, it will not treat existing ones, which is why it is best to get this vaccination prior to HPV exposure.

Other Ways to Reduce the Risk of HPV or Oropharyngeal Cancer

Alcohol and Tobacco

These products might increase the risk of oropharyngeal cancers. Avoid smoking, using smokeless tobacco products and second hand smoke, and limit alcohol use. Quitting tobacco reduces the risk of these cancers even after smoking for many years, while heavy alcohol consumption is another risk factor for oropharyngeal cancer.

Condoms and Dental Dams

These items can reduce the chance of HPV being passed from one person to another when used correctly and consistently.