HPV & Throat Cancer

HPV is most commonly associated with infections in the genital area. However, it can also infect the mouth and throat. While most types of HPV cause no symptoms, some high-risk types are known to cause certain kinds of cancer, including oropharyngeal cancer or “throat cancer.” The prevalence of oropharyngeal cancer has increased dramatically in recent decades. Learn more about how to protect yourself against this type of HPV-associated cancer.

What Types of HPV Cause Cancer?

Most people with HPV infections of the mouth and throat do not develop cancer. There are more than 100 types of HPV, each of which is labeled with a number. HPV-16 is a high-risk type of the virus that is linked to oropharyngeal cancer. HPV infections of the mouth and are typically spread during oral sex. Some studies suggest that it could also be spread during deep, open-mouthed kissing, but this is very rare.

The CDC reports that about 3,400 women and 14,800 men are diagnosed with HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer each year in the United States. Overall, about 70% of cancers of the oropharynx are believed to be caused by HPV.

Preventing Oropharyngeal Cancer

Practicing safer sex by using condoms and dental dams reduces your risk of getting HPV of the mouth or throat from oral sex. You can also reduce your number of sexual partners to decrease your risk.

The HPV vaccine is very effective at protecting against some of the most dangerous HPV types, including HPV-16. The CDC recommends getting the vaccine for:

  • Men through age 21
  • Women through age 26
  • Men who have sex with other men, transgender people, and people with weakened immune systems (like those with HIV) through age 26

The FDA has approved the HPV vaccine Gardasil 9 for adults through age 45. If you’re already sexually active, the vaccine isn’t as effective since it can’t protect against HPV types you’ve already been exposed to.

There’s no routine screening for oropharyngeal cancer. However, precancers or cancers may be detected early by dentists and dental hygienists. Look at your mouth in the mirror regularly to check for changes like white sores, lumps, or patches. If you’re at a higher risk for oropharyngeal cancer, a doctor may also be able to use special lights or dyes to examine your mouth and throat for potentially cancerous symptoms.

Symptoms of Oropharyngeal Cancer

If an HPV infection develops into oropharyngeal cancer, it may present the following oral HPV cancer symptoms:

  • Persistent sore throat
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Hoarseness
  • Earaches
  • Unexplained weight loss

If you’re concerned about your risk for oral HPV and oropharyngeal cancer, talk to your doctor about possible screenings and vaccination and take steps to practice safer sex.

Sources
  1. HPV-Associated Oropharyngeal Cancer Rates by Race and Ethnicity: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018.
  2. Risk Factors for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers: American Cancer Society, 2018.
  3. How Many Cancers Are Linked with HPV Each Year?: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018.
  4. HPV and Oropharyngeal Cancer: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018.
  5. Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and Oropharyngeal Cancer: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017.
  6. HPV Vaccine Recommendations: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016.
  7. FDA approves expanded use of Gardasil 9 to include individuals 27 through 45 years old: U.S. Food & Drug Administration, 2018. 
  8. Can Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers Be Found Early?: American Cancer Society, 2018.