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The Connection Between HPV and Oral Cancer

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The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. There are over 100 types of HPV, and more than 40 strains that can infect the genital areas of men and women, as well as the mouth and throat. HPV is passed through genital contact through vaginal and anal sex, and can also be passed through oral sex.

In recent years, the human papilloma virus (HPV) has been linked to cervical, anus and skin cancers.

“HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States,” says Ann Honebrink, MD, associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Penn.

While HPV can cause symptoms, a person can go for years without ever knowing they have the virus. That, along with the ability of the HPV virus to remain present in a person for a long time, make this virus so prevalent. People continue to spread the virus through sexual contact without knowing they carry the virus. In most cases, the body fights off HPV naturally and eventually the virus is cleared. However, when the body cannot fight off HPV, the virus can persist and may trigger cellular changes that lead to cancer.

“Some types of HPV must be present in order for a woman to develop squamous cell cancer of the cervix, the most common type of cervical cancer,” says Dr. Honebrink.

Vaccines

The good news is there are two FDA approved HPV vaccines: Gardasil and Cervarix. HPV vaccines are given as three shots to protect against HPV infection and HPV-related diseases. They provide the greatest health benefits to individuals who receive all three doses before having any type of sexual activity.

Head and neck cancer

While HPV has been linked to cervical, anus and skin cancers, recent studies suggest the same strain of HPV can also cause oropharyngeal (head and neck) cancer.

“We are seeing more cancer located at the base of the tongue and in the tonsils,” says Jason Newman, MD, assistant professor of otorhinolaryngology, and head and neck surgeon at Pennsylvania Hospital.

“Historically, people who get head and neck cancer are older – over 70 – and have been heavy smokers or drinkers,” says Dr. Newman. “But we are seeing an increase in young, otherwise healthy men and women who develop head and neck cancer related to the HPV virus.”

Treatment for head and neck cancer may include TransOral Robotic Surgery (TORS). Surgeons at Penn Medicine created the da Vinci TORS in 2005. It is the world’s first group of minimally invasive robotic surgery techniques enabling surgeons to remove tumors of the mouth and throat through the patient’s mouth, resulting in shorter, virtually scarless head and neck surgery.

“It’s important to know the signs of head and neck cancer, and to not ignore symptoms that do not go away,” says Dr. Newman. “Treatment options and outcomes improve greatly when cancer is found early.”

To schedule an appointment, call 800-789-7366 (PENN) or visit PennMedicine.org.

Facts about HPV

  • Nearly 20 million people in the United States are infected with HPV.
  • 6.2 million Americans become infected each year with more than 50 percent of sexually active men and women infected with HPV at some time in their lives.
  • Most HPV infections do not cause any symptoms and go away on their own.
  • HPV can cause genital warts and warts in the oral and upper respiratory tract in both men and women.
  • There is no treatment for an HPV infection, but many of the conditions it causes can be treated.

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