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HPV and oral cancer

HPV and Oral Cancer

April 16, 2018

You’ve probably heard of the Human Papillomavirus, referred to as HPV. It’s the most common sexually transmitted virus.

A strain of this virus is known for causing cervical and male reproductive cancers. What you may not know is there are many strains of HPV. These include an oral strain that’s a strong risk factor for oral cancer. 

HPV causes 70 percent of oral cancers

I recently sat down with one of our dental consultants, Teresa Holzer, DDS, to learn more about the connection between HPV and oral cancer. Here’s what she’d like you to know.

The Connection Between HPV and Oral Cancer

Usually when an individual gets HPV, the body’s immune system fights it off. The body is then on guard to prevent re-infection.

All of this happens without the individual knowing they even had HPV because most people with HPV never develop symptoms or health problems. 

However, research shows persistent infection of HPV types may lead to precancerous lesions. 

If untreated, these lesions may progress and result in cancer. These changes and oral lesions are difficult to detect, particularly in the mouth and throat. The sooner these changes and lesions are detected– the better. 

Risk Factors of Oral Cancer

Knowing the risk factors of oral cancer is an important part of prevention. The most common risk factors include:

  • HPV infection 
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Tobacco use
  • Weakened immune system
  • Poor oral hygiene 
  • Poor diet
  • Sun exposure

How to Reduce Oral Cancer Risk

There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of oral cancer. These include: 

  • Change of lifestyle, including avoid the use of tobacco and alcohol  
  • Routine oral HPV screening and education for adults
  • Treatment of precancerous lesions
  • Discuss HPV vaccine with your child’s pediatrician or dentist

Does the HPV Vaccine Prevent Oral Cancer?

A recent study suggests that a vaccine against HPV can greatly reduce the risk of oral cancer by about 88%.  The vaccine works best if administered prior to exposure to HPV, and is not recommended for sexually active adults.

The vaccine is recommended for children and adolescents between ages 9 and 14. It is most commonly given to children between ages 11 and 12.

The vaccination is a series of two shots that begin at age 11 or 12. The shots are given six to twelve months apart.  It’s most effective when given before the age of 13. 

Children 14 and older need three shots given over six months. If your child is older than 14, there’s still an opportunity to receive vaccination. 

Talk to your child’s pediatrician to learn more about getting the HPV vaccine for your child.

Ask Your Dentist if they Screen for Oral HPV 

If you’re an adult and unable to get the HPV vaccine, don’t worry. Many dentists are starting to screen for oral HPV.

While screen technologies are new, they are being used in some dental offices across Washington State.

Oral HPV screening may include using a simple saliva test (using a rinse) to identify if you are positive for oral HPV. 

If the test results are negative, you do not have an increased risk of developing oral cancer. 

If the test results are positive, your dentist will advise you to have another oral HPV screening done in 6 months. Remember, many people’s bodies fight off HPV infection without any medical intervention.

If your second screening shows oral HPV, your dentist will likely refer you to the appropriate medical specialist for further screening. They may also request you come back in a few months to test again to see if the virus has cleared itself from your body.

Want to learn more?

Talk to your dentist to learn more about HPV, oral cancer, and your unique risks.

Don’t have a dentist? No worries! Create or sign in to your MySmile® account to search for an in-network dentist near you.

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