HPV – How The Virus Relates To Oral & Throat Cancers

Posted on Feb 17, 2022 by William J. Claiborne, DDS MS

Every April, a number of oral health and cancer organizations come together to recognize Oral Cancer Awareness Month on a national basis. This is meant to expand awareness of this cancer, which takes a victim every hour of every day. Of those individuals, 43 percent will not survive longer than five years. Those who do survive may suffer from problems, such as severe facial disfigurement or difficulties with eating and speaking.

Oral cancer includes cancer of the mouth and upper throat, known as oropharyngeal cancer. The death rate associated with oral and oropharyngeal cancers is particularly high largely because detection typically occurs late in its development. However, when oral cancer is detected and treated early, treatment-related problems are reduced and with improved survival rates.

Annual oral cancer examinations during regular dental check-ups are the best method for detecting oral cancer in its early stages. It is also important to respond immediately to signs and symptoms of oral cancer, which include:

• A sore or ulceration that does not heal within 14 days;
• A red, white, or black discoloration of the soft tissues of the mouth;
• An abnormality that bleeds easily;
• A lump or hard spot in the tissue, usually border of the tongue;
• Raised tissue or a newly emerged growth;
• A sore beneath a denture or partial that does not heal;
• A lump or thickening that develops in the mouth; and
• A painless, firm, fixated lump on the outside of the neck that does not go away within two weeks.

Historically, factors that can contribute to having a higher risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancers have been heavy drinkers and smokers older than age 50. However, in recent years the cancer is occurring more often in nonsmoking people due to HPV 16, the virus most commonly associated with cervical cancer.

The human papilloma virus 16 (HPV) is sexually transmitted, although it is a different virus than HIV or (HSV) herpes. HPV is now the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States.

Exposure can occur by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus. It most commonly spreads during anal or vaginal sex. It can also spread through close skin-to-skin touching during sex. HPV can spread even when a person with the infection has no signs or symptoms.

There are many different types of HPV; most do not cause any health problems. Most individuals who get HPV never have symptoms and the virus goes away by itself. But, if HPV does not go away, it can cause genital warts or certain kinds of cancer. Symptoms can appear years after having sex with someone who has the infection.

Approximately 99 percent of people who develop HPV will clear the virus on their own. In approximately 1 percent of individuals, the immune system will not clear the virus and it can lay dormant for decades before potentially causing a cancer.

HPV itself isn’t a cancer but it can cause changes in the body that lead to cancer. Because of the growing rate of HPV, the increasing incidence of oropharyngeal cancer have been particularly concerning for younger age groups. Within the age range of 15 to 59, 40 percent will have HPV. This is an alarming rate for people with no other risk factors.

HPV-related oral cancer most commonly involves lymphoid tissue in the tonsils or the base of the tongue. Signs and symptoms of HPV-caused oropharyngeal cancer may include one or more of the following:

• Hoarseness or sore throat that does not resolve within a few weeks;
• A swollen tonsil on one side (usually painless);
• A painless, firm, fixated lump felt on the outside of the neck, which has been present for two weeks or more;
• A persistent cough that does not resolve after many days;
• Difficulty swallowing or feeling something is caught in your throat; and/or
• An earache on one side that persists for more than a few days.



Cervical cancer is the most common HPV-associated cancer among women (48 percent), and oropharyngeal cancers (82 percent) are the most common among men. The diagnosis may not be until years, or even decades, after a person gets HPV. Currently, there is no way to know who will get cancer after getting HPV.


HPV vaccines can prevent some of the health effects HPV causes. Once acquired, however, there is no specific treatment for HPV although there are treatments for health problems that develop from HPV, such as genital warts. Your healthcare provider can treat genital warts with prescription medication.

Because cancers from HPV are more treatable when found and treated early, it is important for those who acquire the virus to be especially diligent in having oral cancer screenings and promptly responding to any signs or symptoms (as mentioned above).

The HPV vaccine is safe and shown to be effective at preventing the virus. Like any vaccine, side effects can occur, which are typically short-lived and mild, such as headache, fatigue, fever or nausea. Most people have no side effects at all.

You are also urged to be committed to your 6-month dental exams. This provides your dentist an opportunity to note any suspicious areas in the mouth or on the lips. If you have not had regular dental check-ups, you may need to begin by seeing a periodontal specialist.

A periodontist is a dentist who specializes in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of periodontal disease (a chronic inflammatory disease that affects the gums and bone supporting the teeth also known as gum disease), and in the placement of dental implants. Periodontists receive extensive training in both of these areas and more, including three additional years of education beyond dental school.

As a periodontal specialist in Asheville for over 25 years, I take great pride in making our patients feel comfortable and understanding of their particular oral health status. If oral problems exist, we are able to resolve many with conservative treatment measures. Our Western NC periodontal dental office features some of the most advanced technology available to minimize treatment needs, treatment time, and speed healing with comfort always a priority. Oral and IV sedation are available.

To schedule an appointment, call 828-274-9440. New patients are always welcome and a referral is not required.

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