Oral HPV Makes Throat Cancer More Likely

Photographed by Claire Pepper.
We know that human papillomavirus (HPV) infections are the most common STI in the U.S., and we know that they can lead to some types of cancer. But new research suggests that having one type of HPV — spread via oral sex — can make throat cancers way more likely.

The study, published online this week in JAMA Oncology, looked at data from two other large studies conducted between 1993 and 2001. Together, this included mouthwash samples and health information for 96,650 people. The researchers wanted to know how many participants developed oral HPV and head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC), which includes cancers of the mouth and throat, over the course of the study.

They found that 103 men and 29 women in their sample were diagnosed with HNSCC during the study. They also found a link between having HPV and oropharyngeal cancer, but not any other type of HNSCC. In particular, those participants with oral HPV had 22 times the risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer compared to those who didn't have the virus. But the rate of these cancers was still relatively low, even among those with HPV.

We already know that having HPV can make some types of cancer more likely, but we usually think about it in terms of cervical cancer. So it may seem surprising to consider HPV in the context of other cancers that are, anatomically, pretty far removed from your cervix. But researchers have actually known about the link for a while now. And some research suggests that oral HPV (frequently spread through oral sex) is now actually the most common cause of oropharyngeal cancer, which often develops years after the HPV infection.

This is yet another reason to check in with your doctor to make sure you're as protected as possible against HPV. And yes, that might mean having an uncomfortable conversation or two about the vaccine. But it's a conversation you'll be safer for having — in ways you might not even expect.
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