There are over 100 types of HPV, and more than 40 strains that can infect the genital areas of men and women, as well as the mouth and throat. HPV is passed through genital contact through vaginal and anal sex, and can also be passed through oral sex.
HPV and Head and Neck Cancer
The connection you should know aboutIn recent years, the human papilloma virus (HPV) has been linked to cervical, anus and skin cancers.
“HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States,” says Ann Honebrink, MD, associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Penn. “Even without showing symptoms of HPV, people can transmit the virus and barrier methods like condoms don’t work as well to prevent HPV transmission as they do other infections like HIV.”
While HPV can cause symptoms, a person can go for years without ever knowing they have the virus. That, along with the ability of the HPV virus to remain present in a person for a long time, make this virus so prevalent — people continue to spread the virus through sexual contact without knowing they carry the virus. In most cases, the body fights off HPV naturally and eventually the virus is cleared. However, when the body cannot fight off HPV, the virus can persist and also can trigger cellular changes that may lead to cancer.
“Some types of HPV must be present in order for a women to develop squamous cell cancer of the cervix, the most common type of cervical cancer,” says Dr. Honebrink.
Oral cancer – HPV’s new connection
While HPV has most been linked to cervical, anus and skin cancers, recent studies suggest the same strain of HPV can also cause oropharyngeal (head and neck) cancer.
“We are seeing more cancer located at the base of the tongue and in the tonsils,” says Jason Newman, MD, assistant professor of otorhinolaryngology, and head and neck surgeon at Pennsylvania Hospital.
Oropharyngeal cancer develops in the part of the throat including the back of the tongue, back part of the roof of the mouth, the tonsils, and the side and back wall of the throat.
“Historically, people who get head and neck cancer are older – over 70 – and have been heavy smokers or drinkers,” says Dr. Newman. “But we are seeing an increase in young, otherwise healthy men and women who develop head and neck cancer related to the HPV virus.”
Treatment for head and neck cancer may include transoral robotic surgery (TORS). TORS is the world’s first group of minimally invasive robotic surgery techniques enabling surgeons to remove tumors of the mouth and throat. This revolutionary breakthrough results in shorter, virtually scarless head and neck surgery. TORS is performed through the patient’s mouth and provides unprecedented access to the small and often difficult-to-reach areas of the mouth and throat.
Surgeons at Penn Medicine created da Vinci TransOral Robotic Surgery (TORS) in 2005. The adoption of this highly advanced robotics technique demonstrates Penn Medicine’s commitment to providing world-class health care.
“It’s important to know the signs of head and neck cancer, and to not ignore symptoms that do not go away,” says Dr. Newman. “Treatment options and outcomes improve greatly when cancer is found early.”
Preventing HPVThe good news is that there is protection for both girls and boys who have not yet encountered the HPV virus. There are two FDA approved HPV vaccines on the market: Gardasil and Cervarix.
Gardasil protects against four major types of HPV; HPV 16 and 18, the two types that cause about 70 percent of cervical cancer and HPV 6 and 11 which cause 90 percent of genital warts.
Cervarix protects against HPV 16 and 18.
HPV vaccines are given as three shots to protect against HPV infection and HPV-related diseases, and they offer the greatest health benefits to individuals who receive all three doses before having any type of sexual activity. This is why the HPV vaccination is recommended for preteen girls and boys at age 11 or 12 years.
Facts about HPV
- Nearly 20 million people in the United States are infected with HPV.
- 6.2 million Americans become infected each year with more than 50 percent of sexually active men and women infected with HPV at some time in their lives.
- Most HPV infections do not cause any symptoms and go away on their own.
- HPV can cause genital warts and warts in the oral and upper respiratory tract in both men and women.
Learn more about the latest HPV vaccine recommendations, and treatment for head and neck cancer at Penn.