Each year in the U.S., about 8,400 people are diagnosed with oropharynx cancer – a cancer that may be caused by HPV. Cancers of the oropharynx are about three times more common in men than women.
While only 30% of oral cancer cases come from HPV, there is a lot of misinformation about this risk factor.
So, what is oral HPV?
HPV lives in the body's epithelial cells. These are flat and thin cells found on the skin's surface and also on the mouth and throat. HPV found in the mouth and throat is called “oral HPV.”
How does HPV cause cancer?
HPV can cause normal cells in infected skin to turn abnormal. Most of the time, you can’t see or feel these cell changes. In most cases, the body fights off the HPV infection naturally and infected cells then go back to normal. But in cases when the body doesn’t fight off this virus, HPV can cause visible changes, and certain types of HPV can cause oropharyngeal cancer
It’s unclear if having HPV alone is sufficient to cause oropharyngeal cancers, or if other factors, such as smoking or chewing tobacco, interact with HPV to cause these cancers.
What are the signs and symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer?
- Persistent sore throat
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Chronic bad breath
- Changes in speech
- Loosening of teeth or toothache
- Dentures that no longer fit
- Pain when swallowing
- Unexplained weight loss
Although these are the most common signs and symptoms, some people with oropharyngeal cancer have no signs or symptoms.
How do people get oral HPV?
Only a few studies have looked at how people get oral HPV, and some of these studies show conflicting results. More research is needed to conclude how people get oral HPV.
How can I lower my risk of giving or getting oral HPV?
While more research is needed, safe sexual habits (like condom use and the use of dental dams) and not smoking or chewing tobacco will lower the chances of giving or getting oral HPV. Also, keeping regular visits with your dentist can lower your risk, as your dentist will be able to spot changes in your mouth.