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Throat (Oropharyngeal) Cancer Risks and Prevention

For the last 10 to 20 years, oropharyngeal, or throat cancers, are increasing in incidence in individuals who are young, healthy and non-smokers. Research shows that the vast majority of oropharyngeal cancer cases seen at Penn Medicine are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. The HPV virus is most commonly contracted from normal sexual activity.  The initial infection does not produce symptoms and the individual who contracts HPV is thought to be contagious for only a short time, less than two years.  While not infectious, a portion of the virus takes over cells deep in the palatine and tongue base tonsils, and in some people, over a period of several decades, becomes cancer. Given the several decade time period between the cancer showing up and the initial infection, in most cases the present partner was neither the source of the infection nor have they contracted infection with HPV. Studies show that present sexual partners at not at increased risk of getting HPV related cancer.

Other risks factors for developing throat cancer include a history of smoking and alcohol use. There are things you can do to prevent your risk of developing throat cancer, including:

  • Protect yourself from HPV by reducing your number of sexual partners and using condoms. Additionally, an HPV vaccine is now available for young women, men and adolescents. 
  • Stop or limit drinking alcohol. 
  • Stop smoking.
  • Eat a balanced diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables.