HPV Virus & Oral Cancer Linked

Posted on Mar 08, 2017 by William J. Claiborne, DDS MS

Some topics are a little embarrassing. Then again, some are so important that we have to get past it.

The Centers For Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) reports that HPV is now the most common sexually transmitted infection. HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives.

There are different types of HPV, some that cause genital warts and others that cause cancers. It is spread through vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone infected with the virus and can be passed even without signs or symptoms. And, symptoms may not appear until years after having sex with an infected person.

Until celebrities such as Iron Maiden lead singer Bruce Dickinson (diagnosed with tongue cancer) and screen star Michael Douglas (diagnosed with throat cancer) spoke up, the growing problem of HPV was fairly hush-hush.

However, the spread of HPV, also called human papillomavirus, is running so rampant that greater efforts are being made to heighten public awareness. Recent research indicates that over 42 percent of women have genital HPV infections and more than half of sexually active people are infected with one or more HPV types at some point in their lives.

There are two types of HPV – high risk and low risk. It is the high risk that accounts for an estimated 5 percent of all cancers. While most high-risk HPV infections resolve on their own within a couple of years, some HPV infections remain for many years. With these high-risk HPV types, there is greater risk of developing cancer.

Virtually all cervical cancers are caused by HPV infections, with two types attributed to nearly 70 percent of all cases. HPV also causes about 85 percent of all cases of anal cancer and are found to cause close to half of vaginal and penile cancers.

HPV infections have also been found to cause cancer of the throat, soft palate, tongue and tonsils. Over half of the cancers diagnosed in the oropharynx (middle part of the throat) are linked to HPV. The prevalence of this cancer in the U.S. has increased so much for men during the past 20 years, it is estimated that the virus will cause more oropharyngeal cancers than cervical cancers by 2020.

When combined with a high-risk HPV infection, factors that increase the risk of developing cancer are:
    •    Smoking
    •    A weakened immune system
    •    Having many children
    •    Extended use of oral contraceptives
    •    Poor oral hygiene
    •    Chronic inflammation

As a Periodontist, I’ve seen how devastating oral cancers can be, with treatment often terribly disfiguring. It is one of the deadliest of all cancers, partly due to its poor survival rate. While I’m sure it was awkward for Michael Douglas and Bruce Dickinson to share their ordeal publicity, at least they were alive to do so. Forty percent of people with oral cancer don’t survive to five years past diagnosis.

While there is a vaccine for HPV, having an annual oral cancer exam is important. These are often part of your 6-month dental check-ups. Additionally, being aware of the warning signs is vital. These include a spot or sore in the mouth, tongue or lips that does not heal within two weeks; a persistent sore throat; difficulty swallowing; hoarseness; or change in the voice. If any of these symptoms occur, do NOT wait until your next check-up. Be seen by your dentist or periodontal specialist immediately. With early treatment, oral cancer can be survivable.

For more information, call 828-274-9440 or schedule a prompt appointment if you’ve noticed any of the above mentioned symptoms.

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