HPV and Head & Neck Cancer

Posted on: April 1, 2014

Dr. Matthew N. SirottHPV and Head & Neck Cancer

April has been designated “Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month”. Historically, it was assumed that head and neck cancers were caused by excessive use of tobacco and alcohol. Within the last 5 years, however, a new risk factor has reared its ugly head. Head and neck cancers account for 6% of cancers in the United States today. Head and neck cancers are typically squamous cell carcinomas, found in the mouth, nose and throat. The most common types of head and neck cancers are oral cancers and orophayngeal cancers. Oral cancers are classified as cancers of the oral cavity (gums or inside of cheek) and are primarily caused by heavy tobacco and alcohol use. Oropharyngeal cancers include cancers of the base of the tongue and tonsils, primarily caused by HPV. Some studies indicate that by the time oropharyngeal cancers are diagnosed; two thirds of them are already in late stage III and IV. Symptoms of head and neck cancer can include a lump or sore in the mouth that does not heal, a sore throat that does not go away, difficulty swallowing, and a change in voice. Typical treatment for head and neck cancers includes surgery and radiation treatment. Chemotherapy may be used in the more advanced stages. Heavy alcohol and tobacco use (including smokeless tobacco) are known to cause at least 75% of head and neck cancers. Smoking increases your risk by 15% and people who use both tobacco and alcohol are at a greater risk. Head and neck cancers that develop due to alcohol and tobacco use typically occur on or near the areas with the most contact (where a cigarette sits on the lip, or where chewing tobacco is placed in the mouth). A newer risk factor for developing head and neck cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV). Currently in the United States, the incidence of head and neck cancers caused by HPV is increasing, while head and neck cancers caused by alcohol and tobacco are decreasing. The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a DNA virus from the papilloma virus family that is capable of infecting humans. It is the most common sexually transmitted infection with an estimated 6.2 million people being newly infected each year. Cervical cancer is the most common cancer caused by the HPV infection; however oropharyngeal cancers are clearly on the rise. Not all types of HPV are cancer causing however. Studies show that 7% of people in the United States have some type of HPV while 1% of the population has HPV-16 (a type of oral HPV). Oral HPV is about three times more common in men than it is in women. The HPV vaccine currently on the marketing is strongly recommended for young women and men. The vaccine was developed to prevent cervical and other less common genital cancers. The vaccine might also prevent head and neck cancers since the vaccine helps prevent initial infection with HPV types. However, there are currently no studies that can determine if the HPV vaccine would help prevent head and neck cancers. To decrease your chances of contracting HPV and oral HPV, the best alternative is to use protection when engaging in any form of sexual activity. If you have any of the symptoms listed above, or think you may have contracted HPV, visit your doctor immediately to be tested. In recognition of Oral Head and Neck Cancer Awareness, we are partnering with Dr. Arash Mohebati from Walnut Creek Surgical Associates to provide free visual screenings on April 22. By appointment only – please call 925-933-0984. Tags: