HPV and Head and Neck Cancer: What You Need to Know

by Kathleen Hall, MBA Health Writer

There are many types of head and neck cancer. They typically begin in the squamous cells of the mouth, nose, and throat, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Squamous cells are flat cells on the surface of the skin or that line hollow organs or tubes, such as the windpipe. But what causes these cancers? One of the most important risk factors is infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV). Read on to learn more about this connection.

Alcohol next to cigarettes in an ashtray.

Risk Factors for Head and Neck Cancers

The biggest risk factor for most head and neck cancers are tobacco and alcohol use. In fact, alcohol and tobacco cause about 75 percent of head and neck cancers, according to the NCI. But the other significant risk factor is infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the U.S.

Intimate couple in bed.

What is HPV?

HPV is a group of more than 100 types of related viruses, about 40 of which are spread through skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, oral, or anal sex. About 90 percent of men and 80 percent of women who are sexually active will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives. Most HPV infections, even those with high-risk types of HPV, go away on their own within a year or two and never cause symptoms or problems.

Cervical cancer.

HPV and Cancer

Approximately a dozen types of HPV are associated with cancer. In fact, 70 percent of cervical cancers and 95 percent of anal cancers are caused by HPV infection, according to the NCI. Most HPV-related cancers are linked to types HPV 16 and 18. HPV also causes some vulvar, penile, rectal, vaginal, and head and neck cancers, specifically oropharyngeal (throat) cancer. However, it takes years after becoming infected with HPV before you may develop cancer.

Doctor examining a patient's throat.

HPV and Oropharyngeal (Throat) Cancer

The oropharynx, or middle throat, includes the back of your mouth (soft palette), base of the tongue, and tonsils. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), of the roughly 16,500 cases of oropharyngeal cancer diagnosed each year, about 11,600 (70 percent) are probably caused by HPV, particularly HPV type 16. Interestingly, despite the high association with oropharyngeal cancer, HPV infection isn’t associated with other types of head and neck cancers.

Woman with a sore throat.

Symptoms of Oropharyngeal Cancer

According to the NCI, the most common symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer are a persistent sore throat, earaches, hoarseness, swollen lymph nodes, pain when swallowing, or unexpected weight loss. Some people with throat cancer don’t experience any symptoms.

Man discussing throat pain with his doctor.

Incidence of HPV-positive Oropharyngeal Cancer on the Rise

As fewer people smoke and abuse alcohol, the overall rate of head and neck cancers is declining. That’s the good news. The bad news is that HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers are on the rise in the U.S. Most of these cancers occur in men. HPV can be transmitted to the mouth and throat via oral sex.

Glowing figure.

But Your Overall Risk of an HPV-related Cancer is Small

Although HPV is a significant risk factor for cervical, anal, and oropharyngeal cancers, only about 31,500 of all cancer cases annually are associated with HPV, according to the CDC, despite the fact that nearly 80 million people are infected with HPV.

Woman discussing throat pain with her doctor.

HPV-positive Oropharyngeal Cancers are Not All the Same

Until recently, scientists believed there were two types of HPV 16-related head and neck cancers. These classifications are based on how the DNA of the virus replicates. Now, researchers have learned there is a third type, a hybrid of the other two, and that 75 percent of HPV-related head and neck cancers are this type. This matters because patients with the hybrid version respond better to therapy.

Doctor showing a patient positive test results.

HPV-positive Throat Cancers Have a Better Prognosis

It also turns out that patients with HPV-related head and neck cancers actually have better survival rates than patients with other head and neck cancers. This may be because these tumors are particularly sensitive to radiation therapy.

HPV vaccine.

Do HPV Vaccines Work for Oropharyngeal Cancers?

The Food and Drug Administration has approved Gardasil 9 for the prevention of the nine types of HPV infections most likely to cause cervical cancer. Gardasil 9 is now the only HPV vaccination available in the U.S. According to the CDC, HPV vaccines protect against HPV 16, which is associated with oropharyngeal cancer. However, while HPV vaccinations may be beneficial in helping to prevent oropharyngeal cancers, to date there aren’t rigorous studies to confirm this.

Couple opening a condom wrapper.

How Can I Prevent Throat Cancer?

To reduce your risk of throat cancer, don’t smoke, and drink alcohol in moderation. Limit the number of sexual partners you have to reduce your risk of receiving an HPV infection (or transmitting it), and get vaccinated against HPV. Additionally, using condoms and dental dams (barriers used during oral sex) can also lower your risk of getting an HPV infection.

Kathleen Hall, MBA
Meet Our Writer
Kathleen Hall, MBA

Kathleen Hall is a health writer who writes articles for consumer and health professionals as well as health care marketing material for corporate clients. Kathleen has a BS in psychology from the University of Maryland, an MBA from Virginia Commonwealth University and is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists. She divides her time between Richmond, Virginia, and Bar Harbor, Maine. Kathleen is also a professional artist and runner.