Cancer Overview

11 Things You Need to Know About the HPV/Oral Cancer Connection

Maybe you think that because you’ve been vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV) you’re in the clear when it comes to cervical cancer. Maybe you think that since you don’t drink or smoke that you can’t get oral cancer. Here are some surprising and sobering facts.

  1. So much of what we hear about HPV has to do with cervical cancer;

    however, we have more adults with oral cancer from HPV than cervical cancer.

  2. Oral cancer from HPV affects both women and men.

    By 2020, the number of HPV-related oral cancers in middle-aged men is expected to surpass rates of cervical cancer in women. Both boys and girls should be vaccinated for HPV at age 11 or 12 to not only lower the risk of oral cancer, but also lower the risk of cervical cancer for females and penile cancer for males.

  3. Among newly diagnosed cases of oral cancer, the fastest-growing segment is people under 40 infected with HPV type-16.

    Even with this knowledge, in 2017, vaccination rates only rose to 46% in girls and 26% of boys. It seems that de-escalating this trend will take a very long time.

  4. Just because you’ve been vaccinated against HPV doesn’t mean you are in the clear.

    There are 200 known HPV strains, including the garden varieties that cause warts on your fingers and feet, and 25 types of HPV virus have been associated with oropharyngeal cancer. The most recent Gardasil vaccine (released in 2017) only helps protect against nine of the most dangerous strains. In addition, we don’t know yet when the protection drops off and if re-vaccination will be as effective.

  5. For decades, tobacco (smoking and smokeless) was the leading cause of oral cancer.

    Now, HPV takes the lead, by more than 10 times the risk of smoking. Other causes of oral cancer are alcohol, genetics and being over 40 years old.

  6. An early oral cancer diagnosis is absolutely critical for survival, otherwise you could be left unable to swallow or chew and suffer severe disfigurement from surgery to remove tumors.

    At your next dental checkup, insist that your dentist does an oral cancer screening.

  7. The number of oral cancers has increased over a seven-year period.

    In fact, one person every 20 minutes of every day, all year long, is getting cancer caused by HPV.

  8. Your dentist or hygienist should be checking your mouth for oral cancer, but there is no effective screening for HPV oral cancer.

    It is usually hiding behind the tonsil folds, in the back of the mouth, in the throat or at the base of the tongue. Your saliva can be analyzed for the presence of 51 HPV strains, and if positive you can build an individualized strategy for early clearing of the virus and/or early cancer detection.

  9. Unlike some viruses (like herpes simplex), human beings can “clear” an HPV infection, provided they have good “host immune response,” meaning good overall health.

    Clean living—meaning good sleep, a whole foods diet, hydration, refraining from smoking (of any kind), refraining from heavy alcohol/drugs, losing weight (if overweight/obese) and avoiding undue stress, may eliminate the virus. If your body doesn’t clear the virus on its own, you carry a persistent HPV infection, making you more susceptible to cancer.

  10. The HPV vaccine is covered by health insurance until age 21 in boys and age 26 in girls.

    Contrary to what you may have heard, if you are beyond the covered benefit age for vaccination, you can still act as your own health advocate. If you’re willing to spend $200-$300 out of pocket, you can get vaccinated at a local pharmacy.

  11. The average age of the first exposure to oral sex is now 10 to 13 years old.

    We need to spread the word among children, adolescents, teens and young adults that oral sex is not safe sex and can lead to HPV transmission.

Dr. Susan Maples is author of “Blabber Mouth: 77 Secrets Only Your Mouth Can Tell You to Live a Healthier, Happier, Sexier Life,” and an expert in the oral health and systemic health connection. Find out more here:

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