Human papillomavirus (HPV) is commonly known as the sexually transmitted virus that causes genital warts and cervical cancer. It is increasingly recognized as a cause for oral or tonsillar HPV infections that colonize the throat, including the tongue base and tonsils.
According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that up to 80 percent of Americans get HPV infections in their lifetime and 99 percent clear these infections without consequence, or even knowing they had the infection. Cleveland Clinic said that most people with oral or tonsillar HPV infections have no symptoms.
Harvard Medical School - Harvard University warned that oral HPV symptoms include:
- Mouth or tongue sores that don’t heal
- Persistent pain with swallowing or sore throat
- Persistent lump in the neck
Most HPV infections go away by themselves within two years. But the infection can persist and cause long-term problems.
HPV infection has recently been established as a cause of the majority of oropharyngeal cancers (cancers in the back of throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils), wrote Cancer.gov.
Cleveland Clinic reported that the most frequent subtype of oral HPV detected is HPV-16, a high-risk subtype of HPV for oropharyngeal cancers. About two-thirds of oropharyngeal cancers have HPV DNA in them. Infection with HPV-16 occurs in about 1 percent of men and women.
Cleveland Clinic cited a recent study that found 7 percent of Americans age 14-69 are infected with oral HPV. The same study found the prevalence has increased significantly over the past three decades, and that more men than women have oral HPV.
Even among those who get an oral HPV-16 infection, less than 1 percent will go on to develop throat cancer, said New York Times (NYT). Although throat cancer caused by HPV is increasing, it’s relatively rare. About 25,000 cases a year are diagnosed in the United States, compared with 226,000 lung cancers.
Oral sex is seen as a culprit for transmitting oral HPV. Oral sex has become more common since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, but not as much as many might think.
According to Debby Herbenick, a director of Indiana University’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion, the mean number of lifetime oral sex partners reported by American men 35-54 is six; men 55-64 report five; men 25-34 report four; men over 65 and under 25 report three, wrote NYT.
However, such “fairly modest changes” in sexual habits do not explain why the cancer risk has doubled or tripled over the years, Gypsyamber D’Souza, viral cancer specialist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told NYT.
It has risen mostly in white men 45 and up. The older age is explained by the fact that, like cervical cancer, it can take decades to develop.
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LeWine, M.D., Howard. "HPV transmission during oral sex a growing cause of mouth and throat cancer." Havard Health Publications. Harvard University , n.d. Web. 11 July 2013.
MCNEIL JR., DONALD G., and ANAHAD O'CONNOR. "Oral Cancer Sneaks Up - NYTimes.com." Health and Wellness - Well Blog - NYTimes.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 July 2013.
"New understanding of oral HPV infections in healthy men." Cancer.gov. National Cancer Institute, n.d. Web. 11 July 2013.
"Oral Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) Infection." ClevelandClinic.org. Cleveland Clinic, n.d. Web. 11 July 2013.
"Single Men, Smokers at Higher Risk for Oral Human Papillomavirus Infection." ScienceDaily.com. ScienceDaily, LLC, n.d. Web. 11 July 2013.
"The HPV Connection - The human papilloma virus related to Oral Cancer." Oral Cancer Information | Oral Cancer News | Oral Cancer Foundation – 2013. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 July 2013.
Reviewed July 16, 2013
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith
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