What You Need to Know About HPV & Oral Cancer
What is HPV?
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. Research indicates that upwards of 75% of sexually active adults carry the virus. The vast majority of people will never have any symptoms and will simply be silent carriers of HPV.
So what’s the big deal about HPV? It can cause deadly cancers, including oral, cervical, and rectal cancers to name a few.
HPV Facts You Should Know:
There are nearly 200 known varieties of HPV but not all of those can cause cancer.
New research indicates that HPV may contribute to 60-70% of oral cancer diagnoses. In the past, smoking was thought to be the main cause of oral cancers.
HPV vaccines are available but it isn’t known if they are 100% effective at preventing HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers.
Because not all HPV infections cause symptoms, you can have HPV without ever knowing it.
Generally, HPV goes away by itself within 2 years and won’t cause any health issues.
What Dangers Does HPV Pose?
Certain strains of HPV can cause painful genital warts (that are treatable), but the real danger is caused by strains that cause cancer.
Who is at Risk?
In women, HPV can cause cervical, vulval, rectal, and vaginal cancer. In men, HPV can cause penile and rectal cancers. In both men and women, certain strains of HPV can cause cancers of the:
White, non-smoking men between 35 and 55 are at the highest risk of oral cancers from HPV. Additionally, people with weakened immune systems, from HIV/AIDS or organ transplants, for example, are also at risk because their bodies aren’t able to fight off infection.
Is There A Test For HPV?
There is no reliable test for HPV in men. Men can be diagnosed with HPV when genital warts appear. But if there are no symptoms, there is no way tell.
A pap smear can identify the presence of HPV in women. Many doctors recommend a pap smear for women over the age of 30. Amazingly, modern science allows doctors to run a DNA test on the abnormal HPV cells to determine the exact strain of HPV present.
This can help women determine if they’re at risk for cancer due to an HPV infection (remember that not all strains of HPV are cancer-causing, also known as ‘high risk strains’).
Can HPV Be Cured or Prevented?
HPV is not curable, but symptoms (like genital warts) can be treated. But HPV can be prevented with a vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends the vaccine for both boys and girls. The two most common vaccines are Gardasil and Cervarix.
Who Should Be Vaccinated?
Boys between 11 and 21 years of age.
Girls between 9 and 26 years of age.
Ideally, vaccination should be done before a child becomes sexually active.
What Symptoms Should You Look For?
When it comes to successfully treating oral cancers caused by HPV, early detection is key. Here are symptoms you should watch out for:
Nagging sore throat and/or cough
Pain or difficulty when swallowing
Pain when chewing
Feeling pain in your ear
Swollen tender lymph nodes
Hoarse or raspy voice
Mouth sores that don’t heal within 2 or so weeks
Red, black, or white discolorations in the mouth
Lumps on the outside of the neck
Numbness in mouth or lips
Earaches in only 1 ear
I know that’s a lot of symptoms! And many might have more benign causes like a cold, flu, TMJ disorder, tonsillitis, allergies, or just a plain old sore throat! But when it comes to HPV and oral cancer, you can’t be too careful.
If you experience one or more of those symptoms, make an appointment and ask your doctor or dentist.
How Can Your Dentist Help?
Frequent cleanings and check-ups at your dentist are a great time to check for changes in your oral health. As I wrote about recently, it’s important to share your entire health history with your dentist. If you’ve been diagnosed with, or experienced symptoms from HPV, your dentist can take a closer look for early signs of oral cancer.
At my practice, it takes just a few seconds to physically inspect your mouth for signs of cancer (and it’s completely painless too!). If you live in the Harrisonburg area, contact our office to learn more or schedule an appointment.