Human Papilloma Virus or HPV is now the number one cause of oral pharngeal cancer in the United States. These cancers occur at the base of the tongue, back of the mouth or deeper in the throat. There are more than 150 types of HPV viruses, but HPV 16 is the one that causes the majority of all oral cancers. Men have a more than double chance of having HPV related oral cancer compared to women and specifically HPV 16 is 6 times more common in men than in women. The incidence of HPV related oral cancers is on the rise while oral cancer caused by tobacco and alcohol exposure in declining. Studies have shown that individuals who also smoke have a 34% increase in chance of contracting HPV 16.
HPV cannot be transmitted by casual contact. The primary risk factor for contracting HPV is oral sex. The greater the number of sexual partners a person has the greater the risk of contraction of the virus. The good news is if someone contracts HPV 16 most individuals are able to fight the infection and clear it after 18 months.
Oral pharngeal cancers can develop many many years after the initial exposure to the virus. Oral cancer will only develop in those individuals who are unable to clear the viral infection. Studies have shown that partners of patients with HPV related cancer have a very low rate of contraction from their partners. The rate of developing oral pharngeal cancer if you carry HPV 16 is still very low at only 2.6%. There is no reliable test available to test for oral HPV and there is no treatment once diagnosed.
Recently there has been development of a vaccine for HPV. It must be given prior to exposure the virus. It is now recommended that all women aged 11- 26 and all men aged 9-21 be vaccinated against HPV. The focus is on the ages of 9-11 years before the first sexual encounter. Studies have shown that vaccinated individuals demonstrated no incidence of HPV.
For more information on HPV and the relationship to Oral Cancer please visit of the Oral Cancer Foundation website or click here.