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A Pain in the Neck (and Head): HPV’s Connection to Head and Neck Cancers
By Beomjune B. Kim, DMD, MD, FACS
Dr. Beomjune B. Kim, DMD, MD, FACS

Though human papillomavirus (HPV) is common — eight out of 10 people will contract it during their lives — many individuals do not understand important factors directly associated with the infection, including an increased risk for developing head and neck cancers.


While most cases will not lead to cancer, the associated risk certainly exists. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 46,000 new cancer cases each year are found in parts of the body where HPV is commonly found, and the virus is responsible for 36,000 of these diagnoses. Furthermore, the CDC estimates 14,400, or 40 percent, of these HPV-causes cancer diagnoses are oropharyngeal — a type of head and neck cancer.


The FYI on HPV

HPV consists of a group of viruses in which there are 200 varying types, and in many instances, the virus does not lead to cancer. Some may experience warts on the surface of the skin while others may develop them on the mouth, throat, vagina and anus. HPV types are also categorized as “low risk” and “high risk.” Low-risk HPV types are generally those that cause warts, while high-risk HPV varieties are more likely to cause cancer. HPV can be passed through skin-to-skin contact, predominately during sexual activity.


The link between HPV and head and neck cancers

HPV can infect the area in the back of the throat, called the “oropharynx,” which includes the base of tongue and tonsils. The CDC states an estimated 70% of oropharyngeal cancers are a result of HPV. These cancers are almost all squamous cell carcinomas, or squamous cell cancers, and are seen more often in young adults with no history of tobacco or alcohol use. Oropharyngeal cancers are twice as common in men than in women, and men are more often seen with HPV-positive cases of the disease.


Though some individuals diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer experience no indicators, symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer may include:

  • A long-lasting sore throat
  • Earaches
  • Hoarseness
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Unexplained weight loss


The American Cancer Society reports that oropharyngeal cancers linked to HPV tend to have a better prognosis than those not caused by HPV. Generally, chemotherapy and radiation work well in these cases; however, this improvement is less common in HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer patients who smoke.


Reduce Your Cancer Risk

The HPV vaccine is effective in reducing the likelihood of contracting HPV and, consequentially, contracting diseases like oropharyngeal cancer. In fact, the vaccine can prevent over 90% of HPV cancers if given at the recommended ages. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends HPV vaccines for children as young as 9 years old, or in anyone age 26 or younger who has not been vaccinated. In certain instances, adults may get the vaccine between ages 27 and 46 with their physician’s guidance.


Smoking tobacco and consuming alcohol may also increase the risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer. Avoiding tobacco products and limiting alcohol consumption is essential. Given HPV is most commonly transmitted through sexual activity, safe sex practices such as using condoms can lower the chance of transmission.


Above all, individuals should know their risk factors for HPV and take action to reduce their own or child’s chances of contracting the virus.


Beomjune B. Kim, DMD, MD, FACS is a head and neck and microvascular reconstructive surgeon at Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) in Newnan. A board-certified and fellowship-trained oncologist and reconstructive surgeon, Dr. Kim received a Bachelor of Arts, Chemistry and Biochemistry at Cornell University; a Doctor of Dental Medicine degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Dentistry; and a Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He completed a residency at the University of Maryland Medical Center.


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