HPV and Oral Cancer

With April being National Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness month, we would like to educate you on one of the less known causes of oral cancer, the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is a virus that infects the epithelial cells of skin and mucosa, not limited to the genital areas, but any moist epithelial areas such as the cheeks, throat, tongue and tonsils.  Transmission occurs when these areas come into contact with the virus allowing it to transfer between cells. Today, HPV is the leading cause of cancers discovered at the very back of the mouth and throat. These are called oropharyngeal cancers. As for oral cavity cancers, HPV is responsible for an extremely minimal amount.  Out of the 200 known HPV viruses, only 9 cause cancer, and of those only 1, the HPV16 Virus, causes oral cancers.  Symptoms of HPV oral cancer are usually subtle and painless making it harder to detect than tobacco related cancers. The best way to screen for HPV related oral and oropharyngeal cancers is through a visual and tactile exam given by your dentist or oral surgeon. It is extremely important to address any persistent problems with your health care professional. Early diagnosis is the key to effective treatment. Start by doing a home self-exam, especially if you are at high risk for oral cancer. High risk factors include heaving drinking, being HPV+, smoking, and using chew tobacco. Here are a few tips on how to do an at home oral exam.

-Use a bright light and a mirror

-Remove any dentures or partials

-Look and feel the inside of the lips and front of the gums

-Pull each cheek out to see the inside surface as well as the back of the gums

-Pull out your tongue and look at all of its surfaces

-Feel for lumps or enlarged lymph nodes on both sides of the neck and under the jaw

When preforming this exam if any of the following are present, contact your dentist or oral surgeon for an evaluation.

-White patches of tissue

-Red patches of tissue

-Red and white patches of tissue

-A sore that fails to heal after 2 wks and or bleeds easily

-An abnormal lump or thickening of tissue

-Chronic sore throat or hoarseness

-Difficulty chewing or swallowing

-A mass or lump in the neck

Our mouth is one of the body’s early warning systems and any suspicious changes should make for a prompt examination by a doctor.