Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, though the virus is not always spread through sexual contact only. There are more than 200 types of HPV, about 40 of which can affect genital areas, the mouth, and throat. About 80% of Americans will experience an HPV infection at some point in their lifetime. What are the risks associated with HPV and how can you protect yourself?

There are many types of HPV, usually classified as low risk or high risk. Low risk infections may have no symptoms, but most commonly cause warts. These warts are usually painless, can be flat or raised (often cauliflower-like), small or large, single or clustered. They can develop anywhere on the body, including the genital/anal areas, as well as within the mouth and oropharynx.

High risk HPV infections, also known as carcinogenic HPVs, are those at risk of developing into cancers. These infections can persist undetected for a period, causing cell changes that may lead to cancer over time. The most common cancer types related to HPV are oral/oropharyngeal, genital, and anal.

Recent studies have shown an increase in prevalence of oral HPV infection, as well as HPV associated oral/oropharyngeal cancers. About 7% of the U.S. population (ages 14-69) have oral HPV, effecting approximately 10% of males and 3.6% of females, increasing in incidence as age increases. About 1 % of Americans have the carcinogenic oral HPV type 16. HPV associated oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma has increased from 40% of all oropharyngeal cancers in 2000, to 70% in 2009, which has been attributed to increases in infection rates of carcinogenic oral HPV types. The CDC reports that in the US, there are 6 million new cases of infection with any HPV type annually. Of those, approximately 21,000 develop cervical or genital cancers, and around 12,000 develop oropharyngeal cancer.

There are a number of ways you can reduce your risk of developing HPV and related cancers. Vaccines are available to protect against the types of HPV that most commonly cause health problems, but is most effective when all doses are received before a person has sexual contact with their first partner. The HPV vaccine protects females against the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers, and also protects against most genital warts, and protects males against most genital warts. The CDC now recommends that all 11- and 12-year-old girls get vaccinated against HPV. The vaccination is also available to all individuals up to age 26 if they did not get all vaccine doses when they were younger.

Oral HPV often has no symptoms. This means that people don’t realize they’re infected and are less likely to take the steps necessary to limit the spread of the disease. Occasionally, infected individuals will develop warts in the mouth or throat, which can be detected by the patient, or at your regular dental examinations. Early oropharyngeal cancer symptoms include: pain or difficulty swallowing, constant earaches, coughing up blood, unexplained weight loss, enlarged lymph nodes, constant sore throats, growths or lumps on the mouth/cheeks/ neck, and hoarseness. Contact your dentist if you have any of these symptoms.

The CDC also recommends reducing your HPV and cancer risks in the following ways:

  • Limit your number of sexual partners. If you do choose to be sexually active, practice safe sex, like using condoms and/or dental dams every time you have sex. Be aware that HPV can be spread through any fluid contact, including genital, anal, oral, deep kissing, or broken skin/wounds. HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom or dental dam— so you should not expect them to fully protect against HPV.
  • Talk to your sexual partners about sexual health, including how recently they’ve been tested for STIs.

Early detection saves lives! Make sure to maintain regular dental checkups, which include thorough oral cancer screenings, to evaluate your risk. Call us to schedule today!

-Alexa, your friendly neighborhood hygienist