What Is the Link Between HPV and Oropharyngeal (Tonsil and Tongue Base) Cancers

What Is the Link Between HPV and Oropharyngeal (Tonsil and Tongue Base) Cancers

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While the causes were historically considered to be smoking-related, throat and mouth cancers are increasingly being attributed to the Human Papilloma Virus. Here is what you need to know about the link between HPV and oropharygneal cancer.

What Is HPV?

Human Papilloma Virus, or HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. With approximately 79 million Americans currently affected by the virus and an estimated 14 million new infections occurring each year, almost all sexually active adults will be infected by at least one form of the virus at some point during their lives.

Most HPV infections resolve themselves without any intervention and have no noticeable health impacts. However, some types of the virus cause small bump-like growths (papillomas) in the genital region, often referred to as genital warts. Other types of the virus can also cause cancer, especially cervical cancers and throat cancers.

Epidemic Proportions

HPV has been widely recognized as the most common cause of cervical cancer for many years. More recently, the frequency of HPV-related oral cancers has also become apparent. HPV is now the most often diagnosed cause of oropharyngeal cancers, which includes tonsil and base of tongue cancers.

If rates of diagnosis continue to increase at their present pace, the number of HPV-related throat cancers will surpass the number of HPV-related cervical cancers within a relatively short period of time. HPV-related throat cancer is quickly becoming an epidemic.

Compared to Smoking-Associated Oral Cancers

HPV-related oral cancers are completely different from their smoking-associated cousins. While still capable of causing significant health problems, HPV-related cancers tend to strike a different population and exhibit a different cure rate when compared to throat cancers stemming from tobacco use. In most cases, patients who develop oropharyngeal cancers as the result of an HPV infection are younger and come from a higher socioeconomic background than their smoking-associated cancer counterparts.

HPV-related cancer patients also tend to experience better outcomes than smoking-related cancer patients. Whether approached surgically, or with chemotherapy or radiation, cure rates are better across the board for HPV-associated tumors.


In most cases, people who develop HPV-related oral cancers were exposed to the virus decades earlier. And while recent advances in vaccines are an excellent way to prevent future infections, they don't provide protection from previous encounters, meaning awareness is your first-line defense, especially if you've had exposure to HPV in the past.

The presence of unexplained masses in the neck or throat are often the first symptom of HPV-related oral cancers. If you notice a growth in these regions that doesn't go away, seek professional care as soon as possible. Other possible symptoms may include trouble swallowing, throat discomfort, or throat pain, although these are less common than with smoking-related oral cancers.

Final Thought

A successful publicity campaign has helped raise awareness regarding the link between human papilloma virus and cervical cancer. HPV's association with cancer isn't restricted to the reproductive organs, however. As the number one cause of oropharyngeal cancers, including tonsil and tongue tumors, it is important for anyone who has been sexually active to be aware of the possibility of developing throat cancers many years after the initial exposure occurred.

Although more common than smoking-related oral cancers, HPV-associated tumors are typically very treatable using conventional approaches such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

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