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.