Heightened Oral Cancer Risk From HPV Virus

Posted on Apr 10, 2023 by William J. Claiborne, DDS MS

April is National Oral Cancer Awareness Month. There is good reason that an entire month has been devoted to this dire health problem. With the growing statistics surrounding HPV and its ties to Oral Cancer, especially amongst adolescents, the need for education and clear, straight-forward discussions are needed.

First, know that the human papilloma virus (HPV) is the nation’s most common sexually transmitted virus. At least 50% of sexually active people will have genital HPV at some time in their lives. While awareness of HPV risk is gaining ground, it is not commonly known that the virus can spread through oral sex and linked to diseases in the mouth.

An estimated 20 million Americans are infected with the human papilloma virus. HPVs, which are a group of more than 200 viruses with 40 types, can easily spread through direct sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex.

Virtually all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV. In the 1980’s, HPV was attributed to around 16% of mouth and throat tumors. Within two decades, that figure had increased to nearly 75%. According to the World Health Organization (WHO):

“Almost all cervical cancer cases (99%) are linked to infection with high-risk human papillomaviruses (HPV), an extremely common virus transmitted through sexual contact.”

A particular type of HPV, the high risk HPV 16, is found in cancer of the tonsils, vocal cords, base of the tongue, and oesophagus. A low risk HPV that causes genital warts may also be found in some cases of cancer of the vocal cords.

Oropharyngeal cancers include malignancies of the tonsils, soft palate, base of the tongue and throat. HPV is commonly transferred through genital contact but HPV spread through oral sex is what increases the risk of mouth and throat cancers.

Another fact that is not widely known is the higher risks for males. Oral cavity and oropharyngeal (throat) cancers are twice as common in men than in women. HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers occur more often in men. The development of oropharyngeal cancer due to HPV is about three times less prominent in females than in men of the same age.

About 10% of men and 3.6% of women have Oral HPV, which is transmitted through sexual or skin-to-skin contact. Oral HPV can spread through deep tongue kissing and oral sex. In men, symptoms may appear in the form of warts, growths, lumps, or sores on the penis, scrotum, anus, mouth, or throat.

Other factors that can heighten the risk that HPV will develop into cancer include:
• Smoking or chewing tobacco (increases oropharyngeal cancer risk)
• Weakened immune system
• Having many children (increases cervical cancer risk)
• Long-term oral contraceptive use (increases cervical cancer risk)
• Poor oral hygiene (increases oropharyngeal cancer risk)
• Chronic inflammation

The spread of HPV is said to be at an epidemic level. Thus, the Centers For Disease Control & Prevention (CDC)  which has prompted the recommendation for HPV vaccinations for ages 11 – 12 year olds. Being vaccinated before becoming sexually active can lower one’s risk of being infected by HPV types and several types of cancers associated with HPV.

Regardless of age, vaccines are available, which many doctors encourage for sexually active patients who have multiple partners. For those who are not vaccinated against HPV, condoms can lower the risk of developing HPV-related diseases, such as genital warts and cervical cancer.

However, HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom. Therefore, the risk remains high for many even with the use of condoms. Condoms do not give complete protection against HPV transmission, which can mean potential infection of areas not covered.

When it comes to oral cancer, alert us immediately if you experience any of the following symptoms that do not clear up within two weeks:
• Have difficulty swallowing
• Have lumps in the neck
• Experience pain in the mouth or ear
• Notice unusual spots inside the mouth (including the tongue) or on the lips

A periodontist is a specialist in the treatment of oral gum tissues and in the placement of dental implants. This dental specialist understands the unique health and risks to gum tissues.

In our Asheville periodontal dental office, we also offer some of the industry’s most advanced digital technology available. These features often minimize the extent of treatment needed, speed healing, and enhance comfort.

We also offer oral and IV sedation for many procedures. These sedatives are safely administered by professionals who are specifically trained in the administration of anesthesia. Here, patient safety and comfort are always priorities.

If you have ANY symptoms that may indicate oral cancer, do NOT wait until your next check-up to have these evaluated. Call 828-274-9440 for an immediate appointment.








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