HPV and Throat Cancer

By now, you've probably heard of HPV—the human papilloma virus—which is the primary cause of cervical cancer and the target of Gardisal, a relatively new vaccine to prevent cervical cancer. However, physicians link HPV to other types of cancer as well, including cancers of the head and neck. Because these HPV-related cancers are a direct result of certain sexual behaviors, physicians hope that increasing awareness will encourage people to take appropriate precautions.

HPV is actually a group of about one-hundred viruses. Each virus is numbered. Some are high risk and lead to cancer; others are low risk and generally do not cause harm. HPV 16 is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the U.S. Experts believe 70 percent of Americans become infected with HPV during their lifetime, although most people don't even know they have it. Fortunately, most cases of HPV infection clear up without treatment.

HPV and Throat Cancer

Researchers now know that HPV infection is also a strong risk factor for oropharyngeal cancer, which forms in the tissues of the middle part of the throat. More than 35,000 people develop oropharyngeal cancer each year and of these, about 1,700 women and 5,700 men have HPV-related cancer. The Centers for Disease control suspects HPV causes about 35 percent of all throat cancers. In contrast, non-HPV throat cancers are primarily associated with tobacco and alcohol use and poor oral hygiene.

In a study of 7,000 people with head and neck cancers, 24 percent had HPV positive tumors. Of these, 87 percent were positive for HPV 16. Being HPV positive increases your risk of developing head and neck tumors by 40 percent; being HPV 16 positive increases your risk four hundred percent.

The good news is that HPV-related throat cancer responds well to treatment and survival rates for patients are high.

Preventing HPV-related throat cancer

HPV spreads from skin-to-skin contact. Risk factors for HPV-related cancer include:

  • An increasing number of lifetime vaginal or oral sex partners
  • Having casual sex at least once
  • Infrequent use of barriers during vaginal or oral sex
  • Having a sexually transmitted disease

Limiting your sexual partners and avoiding sex with people who've had many partners reduces your risk for HPV-related throat cancers.

Sore throats, a common symptom of throat cancer, are common. However, if you have a sore throat that persists for more than three weeks, see your physician.