Oropharyngeal Cancers Are on the Rise: Are You at Risk? Get Tested and Be Certain.
What is HPV?
Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is one of the most common virus groups in the world. There are many different types of HPV, and the health risk varies depending on the type of virus. Some types of low-risk HPV viruses cause skin lesions such as warts however the high-risk HPV virus may cause an HPV infection that may lead to cancer.
Medical research shows that certain high-risk types of HPV are linked to approximately 90% of cervical cancers and similar studies show that these same high-risk types of cause cancer of the mouth, tongue tonsils and throat areas. Excessive smoking and alcohol consumption and certain types of oral HPV are now considered to be a separate and serious risk factor for developing cancer in the head and neck regions.
How Do People Get HPV?
Transmission of HPV of the most common types can be quite simple. With just close contact between people the infection can be spread. These types of HPV are low risks. The more serious types of HPV (high-risk group) that may lead to oral and cervical cancer are known to be sexually transmitted. Other avenues of transmission may also occur. Both males and females are at risk when intimated contact is made with HPV-infected individuals.
How Common are HPV-Related Diseases?
The incidence of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer has risen dramatically in men under 50 years of age. Within 20 years the percentage of oropharyngeal cancers that were HPV-positive went from less than 20% to more than 70% in the United States and some European countries. There is an urgent need to raise awareness of the alarming increase of HPV-associated cancers. Head and Neck squamous cell cancers constitute the sixth leading malignancy globally and they arise primarily in the oral cavity, oropharynx, nasopharynx. larynx, and hypopharynx.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Oral HPV Infections?
Clinical signs of oral HPV infections vary depending on the type of HPV that is present in the infection. Low-risk oral HPV types may lead to a wart or “papilloma”. High-risk oral HPV may present as a sore that won’t heal, which is worrisome sign of potential cancer.
How Do I Know if I Have and Oral HPV Infection?
Early oral HPV infections do not typically cause any clinical signs or symptoms. A visual exam would not detect people that may already be infected caused by oral HPV. However, a simple test is available that can detect oral HPV infections very early. Specimen collection is as easy as obtaining an oropharyngeal (throat) swab placed in a viral collection media.
Who should be tested for Oral HPV?
- Individuals with “traditional risk factors for oral cancer such as smoking and alcohol.
- Males and females that are sexually active.
- Individuals with a family history of oral cancer.
- The largest growing segment of the oral cancer population is non-smokers under the age of 50. All risk factors should be considered regardless of age group.
Why is it important for me to take the HPV test?
When oral HPV causes an infection there are generally three possible outcomes:
- It may “clear” without causing cell changes that usually occurs within the first 12 months.
- It may linger for long periods of time without any clinical signs or changes.
- It may progress and alter cells, leading to malignant changes and cancer of the mouth, tongue, tonsils, or throat.
If I Test Positive for Oral HPV, Does It Mean I Have Cancer?
No. A positive test does not necessarily mean that cancer is present, nor does it mean that you will develop cancer. The earlier the risk of oral cancer is detected or the earlier oral cancer itself is detected, the more likely it can be treated successfully. Patients who test positive for any of the high-risk types should be followed up in accordance with professional medical guidelines, results from prior screening, medical history, and any other risk factors.
If you have any questions regarding HPV infections or wish to get tested, please do not hesitate to contact Dr. Gerber from this web site, or call (310) 652-0450
Robert B. Gerber, DDS, FACD