April is Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, and it’s important to note that between 70 and 90% of all oropharyngeal cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). To bring attention to this deadly disease that affects more than 42,000 Americans every year, we spoke with board-certified otolaryngologist Gregory Neel, MD, to learn more.
How Are HPV and Oral Cancer Related?
“Many people are familiar with the connection between HPV and reproductive cancers but are unaware of the threat it can also pose to their oral health,” says Dr. Neel.
These cancers are found in the mouth, throat and tonsils and have been on the rise for years. Evidence suggests that the incubation time for the disease is about 20 to 25 years after an initial HPV infection.
There are three main subtypes of the HPV virus that are responsible for causing cancer. Subtype 16 is the most common, accounting for nearly 95% of all HPV-related cancers, while subtypes 18 and 33 make up the rest.
Who’s at Risk for HPV and Oral Cancer?
There are often no symptoms of HPV. Most of the time, if you’ve contracted it, your body will be able to heal completely within a year or two. When your body is unable to heal is when the risk of cancer becomes a reality. People with reduced immune responses, such as transplant recipients and people who have immunodeficiency disorders, are especially at risk, but most do not have these risk factors.
“Men are eight times more likely to develop oral cancer from HPV than women,” explains Dr. Neel.
Oral Cancer Symptoms
“Most of the symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer caused by HPV can be easily dismissed as something else but should be taken seriously to catch it early enough to ensure a good outcome,” says Dr. Neel. Listen to your body and, if you notice any changes, see your primary care physician as soon as you can.
Symptoms of oral cancer include:
- Earache on one side for more than three weeks
- Feeling of food sticking in the throat when swallowing
- Mouth or throat ulcers that don’t heal in two to three weeks
- Red or white discoloration of soft tissues of the mouth
- Sore throat that doesn’t go away or reoccurs often
- Swollen lumps on the neck for longer than three weeks
- Visible lump or swelling in mouth or throat
If you experience any of these changes in your body or simply have questions or concerns, contact your doctor right away.
HPV and Oral Cancer Prevention
While the vaccines for HPV, Gardasil and Cervarix, were developed for preventing reproductive cancers like cervical cancer, they also protect against the same subtypes that cause oropharyngeal cancer. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone receive the vaccination against HPV — from boys and girls ages 11 to 12 to adults up to age 45.