HPV is the most common viral infection in the United States, with at least 20 million people currently infected. Because so many people are affected by it, it is important to understand what HPV is, how it affects the mouth and throat, and what you can do to prevent it.
What is HPV?
HPV, which stands for human papillomavirus, is a group of over 150 related viruses. Each of these viruses has its own DNA sequence and therefore is given a number, known as the HPV type. The viruses are named for warts (papilloma) or cancer that they can cause.
How is HPV Transmitted?
HPV can be transmitted through skin to skin contact. It is incredibly common, and most people will encounter some form of HPV at some point in their lives. Some people who are infected with HPV may not realize it because they do not show any symptoms, however, they can still pass along HPV. Also, HPV can sometimes not show up for several years after you’ve been infected, making it hard to figure out when you were infected in the first place.
In many cases, your immune system can fight off HPV on its own, so you don’t suffer from any health issues. However, when your immune system cannot rid the HPV strand from your body, it can cause things like warts or cancer. Mouth and throat cancer are two major types of cancer associated with HPV.
Mouth and Throat Cancer
Traditionally, tobacco and alcohol use were directly correlated to mouth and throat cancers. Now, however, data shows that these kinds of cancers can also be related to HPV infection. HPV is said to be responsible for about 25% of mouth cancers and 35% of throat cancers. There are two categories of HPV strands affecting the mouth and throat:
- Low-risk strains: These strains cause mouth and throat warts. Some common strands of low-risk HPV are 6 and 11.
- High-risk strains: These strains are often associated with throat and mouth cancers (oropharyngeal cancers), which affect your mouth, throat, tonsils, and back of the tongue. Some common strands of high-risk HPV are 16, 18, 31 and 45, which are all associated with cervical cancer.
Both cancer types usually develop in the throat, at the back of the tongue or near your tonsils. Therefore, noticing any abnormalities can sometimes be hard to notice.
Signs and Symptoms of Mouth or Throat Cancer
- Persistent irritation or soreness
- Red or white patches on mouth or lips
- Pain or tenderness on mouth or lips
- Lumps, thick tissue areas, rough sports,
- Crusty or eroded areas
- Difficulty with moving jaw or tongue (chewing, swallowing, speaking, singing, etc.)
- Changes in teeth alignment
When you start to experience any of these symptoms, it is best to schedule an immediate appointment with your dentist. If you have developed mouth or throat cancer, an early diagnosis will result in the best outcome.
Using the HPV Vaccine to Help Prevent Mouth and Throat Cancer
The CDC claims the HPV vaccine can protect anyone ages 9 to 26. The latest version of the vaccine, known as Gardasil 9, protects against nine major strains of HPV that cause certain kinds of cancer. It is given in the arm muscle with either two or three shots, depending on age.
- Ages 9 to 14 have the option of doing two or three doses.
- Two doses: The first shot must be given six to twelve months before the second (if it is given sooner, a third shot is required).
- Three doses: The second shot should be two months after the first, and the third should be at least six months after the first.
- Ages 15 to 26 should use the three-dose schedule, where the second shot is given two months after the first, and the third is given six months after the first.
While Gardasil 9 can protect from these nine strains, it cannot:
- Fully protect everyone
- Protect against diseases caused by other strains (not the 9 included in the vaccine)
- Diseases not caused by HPV
- Prevent all types of cervical cancer
- Treat cancer or genital warts
HPV is a common virus, but it can pose serious health threats to those infected by it. That’s why it’s important to schedule annual dental check-ups and schedule a screening with your dentist immediately if you notice any abnormalities. Oral cancers are much easier to treat in the early stages than they are when found in the later stages. Dentists and dental hygienists are usually the first in line of defense when it comes to detecting mouth and throat cancers.