Rise in oral HPV cases

November 12, 2012

Rise in oral HPV cases

HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that can cause many types of cancer, including cancer of the mouth and throat.

A recent study has shown an increase in the numbers of people with the oral version of the Human Papillomavirus. Research involved 5,000 volunteers who provided a sample of their saliva and completed a questionnaire about their sexual activity. Almost 7% were found to have an oral HPV infection. It appears that men are more likely than women to have an oral HPV infection. This research appears to show that around 16 million Americans are infected with oral HPV. However, most of these people will not go on to develop oral cancer. This research does however emphasise the ongoing need for research into HPV and its’ possible outcomes, as well to ascertain the usefulness of the current HPV vaccine has against the oral type of infection.

What is HPV?

HPV is a skin to skin sexually transmitted disease that causes genital warts and for which there is, as yet, no known cure. Signs and symptoms of the virus may never appear or may appear many months after infection. The absence of symptoms makes it difficult to detect whether someone is infected and even the use of condoms will not give full protection from the virus. Having multiple sexual partners or frequent sex is known to increase the risk of infection and the only way to avoid infection completely is to abstain from sexual activity of any kind – infection can occur in the mouth and the anus. Some strains of the virus are known to be linked with the development of cervical cancer. Around 4% of the volunteers in this recent study were found to be infected with the higher risk HPV.

Oral HPV infections are less frequent than genital infections, indicating that the mouth may be more resistant to infection.

There are many strains of HPV, but the one most strongly associated with cancer is HPV-16.

HPV and cancer

HPV is a known risk factor for cervical cancer, it also appears to be linked to the recent increase in cancers of the head and neck – this may well be related to the upsurge in oral infections of HPV. Cancer of the mouth, tongue and throat has previously been associated with smoking and alcohol consumption; it seems to be increasingly associated with the Human Papillomavirus. Whilst it appears that several million Americans have oral HPV it is estimated that fewer than 15,000 of those people will go on to develop the cancer associated with this virus. HPV linked oral cancers are more difficult to detect than other oral cancers due to their location at the back of the throat and around the tonsils; symptoms may include sore throat, difficulty in swallowing, ear pain as well as swollen lymph nodes in the neck.


Whilst a successful vaccine has been developed, it is largely administered to girls, although recently boys have also begun to be vaccinated. The effectiveness of the vaccine against oral infection remains unknown and is therefore not recommended for prevention of oral cancers. The current vaccine guards against genital warts, cervical cancer and cancer of the anus.

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