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DDWA Blog

Oral Cancer from an STI? The HPV Link

March 15, 2016

In 2013, Michael Douglas alerted Americans to a health crisis when he famously discussed the cause of his oral cancer. When asked if he regretted smoking and drinking in light of his diagnosis, Douglas replied, “No…this particular cancer is caused by HPV.”

The scandalous statement did more than swamp the news—it shined a light on this growing health epidemic.

Over the past decade, oropharynx cancer cases have increased nearly 5 fold. This type of cancer affects the tonsils and the base of the tongue. And Michael Douglas was on to something—approximately 70% of cases are caused by HPV. It’s the same virus that causes cervical cancer.

Genital HPV, human papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the U.S. and world, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s estimated that 90% of adults have been exposed to some form of HPV.

Every sexually active person is at risk for contracting HPV. Most people with HPV don’t know they’re infected because they never develop symptoms or health problems from it. That’s why it’s extremely important to practice safe sex and stay on top of your preventive care visits with your doctor AND dentist.

Your doctor will assess your risks and ensure you receive the proper screenings. Your dentist is often your first line of defense when it comes to spotting oral cancer. In fact, signs of oral cancer are one of the things your dentist looks for during a routine exam.

To learn more about HPV, talk to your doctor. To learn more about your risk for oral cancer, talk to your dentist.

The best way to reduce your risk: Get vaccinated. 

If you are between the age of 9 and 26, man or woman, get vaccinated! For men, you’ll reduce your personal risk of oral cancer. For women, you’ll eliminate your risk of cervical cancer and limit the spread of HPV. The vaccine prevents infection; it does not treat adults who are already infected.

Remember, most people are infected with HPV at some point in their lives. This means the relationship between HPV infection, sexual activity, and cancer is incredibly complex.

Consult your healthcare provider to learn more about your specific risk.

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