Oral HPV: What You Need To Know

HPV or human papilloma virus is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the US, affecting 75-80% of males and females in their lifetime. There are about 79 million Americans infected with HPV, and about 14 million people become newly infected each year.  What most people don’t realize however, is that aside from being the leading cause of cervical cancers, it is also the leading cause of mouth and throat cancers.

Why is HPV so common, and so easily spread around?  Human papilloma viruses are actually a group of more than 150 related viruses. They typically cause warts (papillomas) which are benign tumors, which is where the name comes from.  HPVs that cause warts on your hands and feet typically do not spread easily.  HPVs that cause other warts, such as genital warts, are spread more easily via sexual contact and are referred to as sexually transmitted infections.  Sexual contact is not limited to vaginal intercourse, and as such HPV is the leading cause of oropharyngeal cancers, and a very small number of front of the mouth, oral cavity cancers. HPV16 is the version most responsible, and affects both males and females.  This is why it is important to practice safe sex when engaging in oral sex as well.

The types of sexually transmitted HPVs that cause cervical, throat or other types of cancer are referred to as “high-risk”, “oncogenic” or “carcinogenic” HPVs.  High-risk HPV doesn’t necessarily equate to cancer.  It is high-risk HPVs that do not go away, or are persistent, that are the biggest risk factor for cancers.  Other sexually transmitted HPVs that do not cause cancer are referred to as “low-risk” HPVs.  Some HPV infections will not produce any symptoms or cause any health problems and will go away without treatment.  On the other hand, the HPVs that persist for many years can eventually cause cancer. 

For oral cancer caused by HPV, those most at risk are non-smoking white males, between the ages of 35 to 55.  Men are actually at risk 4 to 1 over women. Here are some common symptoms of oral cancer to watch out for:

·       An ulcer or sore that does not heal within a few weeks

·       A red, white, or black discoloration in the mouth

·       Difficult or painful swallowing

·       A swollen but painless tonsil

·       Pain when chewing

·       A persistent sore throat

·       Hoarse voice

·       A swelling or lump in the mouth

·       A painless lump on the outside of the neck

·       A numb feeling in the mouth or lips

·       Constant coughing