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How Does Oral HPV Cause Cancer?

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What Is Human Papillomavirus (HPV)?

Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, is a small-sized virus replicating DNA. It infects the skin and moisture-containing surfaces of the body like the mouth, cervix, vagina, and anus. There are more than 100 variants of HPV. The most common types affect the skin and cause warts on the hand. On the other hand, the high-risk HPV variants may also lead to throat cancer, called oropharyngeal cancer, which is becoming more prevalent in the US and Europe. In addition, some HPV types cause infection in the genital areas of females and males. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) estimates that genital HPV is the most typical sexually transmitted disease in the US and globally.

What Does Oral HPV Look Like?

Oral HPV symptoms in the mouth will first appear as a small pink, red or whitish sore, similar to any canker sore or mouth ulcer. That is why dentists advise immediate check-ups when you see any lesion in your mouth. It is the first step to detecting HPV infection as soon as possible. However, 90% of mouth lesions are not malignant. But as the saying goes, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Some other notable oral HPV symptoms are:

  • Lumpy growth within the mouth
  • Sticky feeling in the throat
  • Hoarseness
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Blood while coughing
  • Weight loss
  • Persistent earaches
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Constant throat pain and irritation
  • Knot-like bumps on the cheeks
  • Growths or lumps on the neck
  • Mass of warts in or outside the oral cavity
  • Excessive drooling
  • Swollen tonsils with no pain

If you notice any of these symptoms or changes to your lips, tongue, or gums, visit your dentist soon.

What Are The Chances Of Getting Oral Cancer From HPV?

HPV can cause cancers of the oropharynx (back of the throat, tonsils, and base of the tongue) when it infects the mouth and throat. It may take years for the cancer to develop after an HPV infection. HPV is not known to cause cancers that affect the head, mouth, salivary glands, neck, larynx, lip, and nose.

Is Oral HPV Curable?

No specific treatment for oral HPV infection exists as of now. Besides, most oral HPV infections get better without treatment within two years and do not pose significant health risks. However, surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy (RT), either as single modalities or in combination, are required if HPV infection has turned cancerous. On the other hand, many patients can expect to return to good health within a year of starting the treatment for oral HPV-related cancers.

How Can You Prevent Oral HPV?

Most dental and medical organizations don’t advise screening for oral HPV. However, lifestyle changes play a crucial role in preventing HPV infection. Here are some tips to remember.

  • Always use protection when having sex
  • Ask new sexual partners if they have sexually transmitted diseases
  • Refrain from oral sex with unknown persons
  • Use dental dams or condoms to prevent oral STIs
  • Go for oral health check-ups every six months
  • Examine your mouth carefully at least once a month
  • Get vaccination against HPV
  • Get tested for sexually transmitted diseases regularly

The Bottomline

Oral HPV infection is not uncommon. However, it goes away on its own in most cases. Early detection and timely treatment are requisites when HPV infection leads to oral cancer. Safe sexual practices, regular dental visits, and self-examination of the mouth once a month help prevent oral HPV infection and take steps to deal with HPV infection.

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