HPV: What is it, and What Does it Have to Do with Oral Cancer?

What is HPV?

HPV stands for Human Papillomavirus.  It is an often-undetected viral infection that infects an estimated 6.2 million new people each year.  It is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States.  HPV does not cause any symptoms at the time of infection, so most people are unaware that they have it.

There are hundreds of different strains of the virus, and nine are known cancer-causers.  The CDC estimates that more than 80% of Americans will have an HPV infection in their lifetime.  Most people have non-cancer-causing strains, and their bodies’ immune systems naturally clear the virus within 2 years of infection.

The vast majority of people infected with HPV do NOT develop cancer.

What Does HPV have to do with Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer has historically been the disease of the 60 year old white male smoker.  The cancer was usually located in the front of the mouth and easily correlated to tobacco and alcohol use.

Times have changed.  As researchers noticed an increase in oral cancers among younger non-smokers toward the back of the mouth and throat, they looked for the reason behind this change.   What they found was an extremely high prevalence of HPV infection in these “new” oral cancers.

The strain HPV16, which is also associated with cervical cancer in women, is the same culprit in newer oral cancers.

How Does This Change Things?

The demographics of oral cancer have changed.  Dentists typically held to a 75/25 rule: 75% of oral cancers are tobacco-related, and 25% are not.  That rule no longer applies.  Oral cancer affects people of all ages with no history of tobacco or alcohol use.  A recent Swedish study showed that 60% of oral cancer patients tested were infected with HPV.

This means there is no specific profile for oral cancer anymore.  All people are at risk, and all must be screened regularly.  At Timberlake Dental, we perform a comprehensive oral cancer screening on every patient (even children) at every professional cleaning visit.  Our doctors and dental hygienists are trained in the detection of suspicious lesions that could be dangerous.

Who has the Highest Risk for HPV-related Oral Cancers?

The statistics show that non-smoking white males aged 35-55 years with an active sexual history are at the highest risk.  The more sexual partners, the higher the risk.  Patients with weakened immune systems are also at a higher risk because their bodies will not naturally clear the infection as most do.

How Can I Find Out if I Have HPV?

You can request a test from your medical doctor.  Most women will have this test performed with their yearly exams with an Ob/Gyn.

What if I Do Have HPV?

  • Don’t freak out. Most people have this virus at some point in their lifetimes.  Having an HPV infection does not mean you will get oral cancer.  It only means you may have a higher risk for developing oral cancer.
  • Check your mouth monthly! Note any unusual lumps, bumps or sores.  If they do not go away on their own within 2 weeks, make an appointment to see your dentist ASAP for an evaluation.
  • Keep your mouth healthy! Oral cancer rates are higher among patients with oral disease (like cavities and gum disease).  Keeping your mouth healthy boosts your immune system and lowers your risk.
  • Practice safe sex and limit the number of sexual partners. Your risk for dangerous strains of HPV, which are closely linked to cancer, increases with more sexual partners.

Want More Information on HPV-Related Oral Cancer?

The Oral Cancer Foundation provides statistics, advice and links to research about HPV and Oral Cancer.  Or call 940-382-1750 to schedule a consultation with Dr. Chowning.  He can answer any oral cancer question you may have and perform a thorough oral cancer screening while you’re there.

Tags: , , , ,