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While the human papillomavirus is a sexually transmitted disease that most commonly affects the genital area, it can also affect the throat as well, leading to cases of throat cancer. In fact, more than 40 subtypes of HPV that are sexually transmitted can affect the genital area as well as the throat and mouth.
When throat cancer is caused by HPV, it is also referred to as HPV-positive throat cancer, and the subtype likely responsible is HPV-16.
What Symptoms May Develop With HPV-Positive Throat Cancer?
When throat cancer is caused by HPV, the symptoms will be similar to throat cancer that is not caused by the HPV virus. While a swollen neck is much more common in HPV-positive throat cancer, and a sore throat is more common with HPV-negative throat cancer, most of the other symptoms remain the same. Symptoms that may occur with HPV-positive throat cancer include:
- Swelling lymph nodes around the neck or areas close to it.
- Repeating or painful earaches.
- Tongue thickness or swelling.
- Pain or difficulty when swallowing.
- Hoarseness and scratchiness in the throat.
- Numbness or tingling inside of the mouth.
- The appearance of small lumps around the mouth or the neck.
- Coughing or spitting up blood.
- White or red spots on the tonsils.
- Weight loss that has no explanation.
HPV is not always easy to detect when it is in the early stages because it can take some time for symptoms to develop. In some cases, oral HPV can clear up on its own within a few years resulting in no negative health consequences. If you feel you are at risk for HPV exposure and have any symptoms, it is best to contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible.
What Can Cause HPV-Positive Throat Cancer?
Even though the most common way to contract oral HPV is through oral sex, there is no confirmed cause that leads the oral form of the virus to turn into cancer. It is very common for HPV to cause no noticeable symptoms, which is the reason that it spreads unwittingly from partner to partner. A lack of symptoms, combined with the fact that it can take a long time for an HPV infection to turn into cancer, makes it much more difficult for healthcare providers to determine the exact cause.
What Factors Can Lead to a Higher Risk of HPV-Positive Throat Cancer?
Two-thirds of patients with throat cancer will have a strain of HPV-16. It is estimated that up to 1% of adults will have an infection with the HPV-16 strain. So even though most people with HPV-16 will never develop throat cancer, those who have it are at a much higher risk than those that do not. Other factors that can make you more susceptible to developing HPV-positive throat cancer include:
- Smoking: While smoking does not increase your risk of contracting the HPV-16 strain, when you smoke and have an HPV infection, your overall risk for developing cancer cells is higher. Smoking can also increase the risk of HPV-negative throat cancer.
- Gender: Oral HPV infections are three times more likely to occur in males, and men are five times more likely to have a high-risk oral HPV infection. This combined with the fact that the presence of the HPV-16 strain is six times more likely in men than women means that men are at a slightly higher risk of developing HPV-positive throat cancer.
How is HPV-Positive Throat Cancer Diagnosed?
Unfortunately, there is no definitive test to detect the presence of either oral HPV or HPV-positive throat cancer. Most often, symptoms of throat cancer may be discovered by your healthcare provider during a routine exam or if you have noticed problems. If the symptoms of cancer include sores or lumps on the tongue or mouth, they may be detected by your dentist during a routine oral cancer screening. But in most cases, cancer is not suspected until symptoms become present.
For those who may be at a higher risk for HPV-positive throat cancer, it may be wise to discuss with your healthcare provider the possibility of having regular oral cancer exams. These exams involve looking in your mouth with a small camera device to check your vocal cords and the back of your throat.
How is HPV-Positive Throat Cancer Treated?
The treatment options available for HPV-positive throat cancer will be similar to those for any other type of throat cancer. The ultimate goal of all types of treatment is to shrink and eventually rid the body of the cancer cells in the throat area, preventing their spread to other organs. Cancer cells can be treated through the use of:
- Surgical removal through traditional means or robotics.
How You Can Reduce the Risk of Developing HPV-Related Throat Cancer
The best way to reduce your risk of developing HPV-related throat cancer is by protecting yourself from contracting HPV. Since HPV often doesn’t present symptoms, many people are not aware that they carry the virus. To help reduce your risk, you can:
- Get vaccinated against many HPV strains.
- Use condoms during sexual intercourse.
- Use a dental dam during oral sex.
- Avoid smoking if you have the HPV virus.
- Schedule regular dental visits that include oral cancer screenings.
If you already have HPV, you can reduce your risk of complications by maintaining regular appointments with your healthcare providers and contacting them when you have any troublesome symptoms.
What is the Typical Prognosis With HPV-Related Cancers?
The good news is that HPV-positive throat cancer is extremely responsive to treatment. On average, 85% to 90% of those diagnosed with it will be disease-free for at least five years after being diagnosed. The earlier the cancer is caught, the better it will respond to treatment, so it is important to contact your healthcare provider if you suspect that you may have developed any type of throat cancer.
HPV and Oropharyngeal Cancer, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 2018