The Link Between HPV & Oral Cancer

What is HPV?

HPV is an abbreviation for the human papilloma virus. HPV is a virus that is transmitted through sexual contact (either genital or oral). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 40 types of the virus and currently more than 79 million Americans are infected. Most people who have HPV show no symptoms and many do not even know they have the virus. Other people become infected with warts on the skin or warts in the genital area.

How is HPV transmitted?

HPV is transmitted through sexual contact. The virus lives in saliva, semen and genital secretions. Therefore, practice safe sex and be aware of the consequences that could follow unprotected sex.

Leading Cause of Oral Cancer

For years, the leading cause of oral cancer was tobacco. However, the human papilloma virus has now become the No. 1 oral-cancer cause due to oral sex. A study in 2011 found that between 1984 and 2004, the percentage of oral cancer caused by HPV increased from 16 percent to 71 percent.

How common is HPV?

It is estimated that 20 million people in the U.S. currently have HPV infection. One in 49 people will get a new HPV infection each year, concluding that HPV infection is very common. Most sexually active people have had an HPV infection at some point in their lives, although many never know they were infected. In 90 percent of cases, the body is able to clear the virus within two years.

How does HPV cause cancer?

The human papilloma virus can cause normal cells to mutate and change. You can’t feel or see these changes most of the time. In most cases the body can fight off HPV, but when it can’t HPV causes cellular changes and certain types of the virus can cause oropharyngeal cancer. Cancer caused by HPV usually takes years to develop after a person has been initially infected with the virus. Other factors such as smoking or chewing tobacco have been recognized to interact with HPV and cause cancer more quickly.

What are the signs and symptoms of HPV?

Symptoms such as a persistent sore throat, earaches, hoarseness or enlarged lymph nodes are all warning signs that something may be going on. Pain when swallowing and unexplained weight loss also are signs of HPV. However, some people have no signs or symptoms of HPV.

How do I get more information?

Talk to your healthcare professional or visit CDC’s National Prevention Network.

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