Oral Cancer and the Human Papillomavirus HPV

An article published in the Journal of American Dental Association has examined the relationship of oral cancer to infection by the HPV.  It has been known for some time that most cervical cancers occur in females infected by HPV.  Evidence is now emerging that shows that HPV infection occurs in most oropharyngeal (throat) cancers.  Alcohol and tobacco use are contributing factors that increase the likelihood that those infected with HPV will develop throat cancer.

HPV infection is most commonly transmitted from person to person by sexual contact.  Two vaccines have been developed to help control the spread of HPV.  These vaccines are preventive, no therapeutic.  They do not treat infected people, but help prevent infection.  It has been recommended that young females receive their vaccinations before their first sexual encounter, to reduce the risk of their later developing cervical cancer.  Though not confirmed by clinical trials, it now seems obvious that young boys should also receive  the vaccine to help prevent the development of throat cancer.  Up to 85% of all throat cancers are related to HPV infection, and are more prevalent in males than in females. 

One of the most important components of your periodic oral exam is the oral cancer screening.  Every time that I do an exam, I check your mouth and throat for signs of cancer.  I check your tongue, cheeks, floor of mouth, lips, palate, and throat for any abnormal tissue.  If something suspicious is observed, I will recommend a biopsy to microscopically determine the nature of the lesion.  Throat cancer can be difficult to see directly.  It often develops in tonsils or deep down the throat.  Be sure to report signs that indicate that you may have a problem.  These include difficultly swallowing, pain, swelling, hoarseness, or bleeding from the back of the throat.  If I cannot directly observe the cause of the problem, then I will refer you to an ear, nose, and throat physician, who has the tools to visualize the affected area.

HPV caused throat cancer is often effectively treated by chemo and/or radiation therapy if discovered early.  Be sure to keep your regular oral examination appointments, so that we have the chance to catch things that are abnormal.  Think twice about declining to have your oral cancer screening done when you have your teeth cleaned.  Ask your pediatrician about the possibility of having your children vaccinated before age 12.  Remember that no one other than your dentist will do a thorough oral cancer screening.  The life that you save could be your own, or more importantly, the lives of your children.

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