Doctors Increasingly Concerned about Link between HPV and Throat Cancer
Cancers caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) have been the subject of a great deal of attention in the medical community recently. In October of 2016, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) revised its guidelines to recommend vaccination for boys as well as girls. Although the CDC’s website still cautions that the current vaccinations were developed for genital and anal cancers and studies have not yet been done to determine its effectiveness at preventing oropharyngeal cancers, part of the reason why doctors are increasingly pushing for vaccinations is that several studies have recently been released showing that HPV is far more common than most people suspected and that the rate of new diagnoses of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers is increasing.
The oropharynx is the back of the tongue and the mid-section of the throat. Like the oral cavity, it is vulnerable to cancers caused by smoking and drinking alcohol, but it is also the more common location for orally-transmitted HPV to infect. The vast majority of sexually active people get HPV at some point in their lives (although sex may not be the only way it is transmitted), but most strains of HPV do not cause health problems. If HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer is detected early, it is among the easier cancers to treat, and the death rate from it has continued to fall even as new cases have risen. However, because it is difficult to carry out self-examination of the oropharynx, and because information about the link between HPV and oropharyngeal cancers is not yet widely known among the public, a potentially cancerous infection may be allowed to persist until it becomes extremely dangerous.
While there is reason to be optimistic about HPV vaccines preventing oropharyngeal cancers, until conclusive studies are done, doctors, including dentists, will continue to rely on screenings and public education. HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers are more common in men, just as tobacco and alcohol-associated oral cancers are, but the men with oropharyngeal cancer tend to be much younger and are not particularly likely to be smokers. Because people also frequently think of HPV mainly in terms of genital cancers and oral cancers in terms of smoking, they may not be aware if their behavior is putting them at risk.
While the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force does not yet make a recommendation to primary care providers about whether to screen for oral cancers, dentists commonly do so. There is not a clearly established way of testing for oral HPV itself, but there are methods of detecting proteins associated with it, as well as damage to tissues. Dental offices employ a variety of detection methods, including dyes, ultraviolet lights, and tactile examination. If you have any concerns about cancers or other sexually-transmitted infections, remember that your dentist is a great resource.