HPV Linked Oropharyngeal Cancer – What Do We Know?

We all agree that cancer is a deadly disease that occurs due to an uncontrolled division of cells in the body.

Although there might be several causes of oral cancer, one unique and rare type of cancer that affects the mouth and throat is HPV linked oropharyngeal cancer.


HPV stands for Human Papilloma Virus. It is the most common sexually transmitted disease, especially in the United States.

The prevalence of HPV is as high as 14 million cases per year. There are 40 types of HPV strains found in our body. However, only a few strains affect the mouth and the throat.

Low-strain HPV causes mild inflammation or warts in the mouth, but high-strain HPV is the main culprit for causing oropharyngeal cancer.

Oropharyngeal cancer mostly arises in the base of the tongue, throat, tonsillar area, and soft palate.

HPV linked oropharyngeal cancer is an uncommon occurrence. However, with an increasing rate of HPV infection, the predictability is uncertain.

Today’s article will highlight the cause, risk factors and treatment of HPV linked oropharyngeal cancer. Moreover, we will also look upon some of the preventive tips to eliminate the possibility of contracting HPV infection.

What is HPV linked oropharyngeal cancer?

HPV, also known as Human Papilloma Virus, is a sexually transmitted disease which usually affects the genitals of an infected person. However, some strains of HPV like HPV-16 can affect the mouth and may cause oropharyngeal cancer. (1)

HPV linked oropharyngeal cancer often occurs at the base of the tongue, soft palate, near tonsils and throat. According to the Center for Disease Control, 77% of the cancers that occur at the back of the tongue are HPV linked.

What are the signs and symptoms?

The symptoms of this oral condition are often understated. Therefore, it is difficult to distinguish it from other oral cancers in the mouth. (2)

Following signs and symptoms are typical of HPV linked oropharyngeal cancer –

  • A lasting sore mouth and swollen throat for more than two weeks
  • Painless tonsil
  • Hoarseness of voice
  • Constant coughing
  • Pain and discomfort while chewing and swallowing food. Often there might be a feeling of food getting stuck in the throat
  • Unilateral earache for a prolonged time
  • Numbness of lips or anywhere in the mouth
  • Discoloration of the soft tissues in the mouth

Who is at risk?

Recent studies have shown that around 1% of adults suffer from HPV-16 infection. Moreover, two-thirds of these cases develop oropharyngeal cancer. (3)

Smoking increases the risk of oropharyngeal cancer in an HPV infected person. The prevalence of HPV linked oropharyngeal cancer is three times high among men as compared to women.

How can this condition be diagnosed?

There is no single test to detect and diagnose HPV linked oropharyngeal cancer. A dentist may take a thorough medical history and look at the signs and symptoms of the condition during a routine dental exam.

Oral cancer screening test is beneficial in providing a definitive diagnosis. During this procedure, a physical examination of the mouth and throat is done using an intra-oral camera.

What is the treatment?

HPV linked oropharyngeal cancer is treated similarly to other types of oral cancer. The treatment aims to stop the division and reduce the spread of cancer cells around the throat and mouth. (4)

Some of the treatment modalities may include –

  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiotherapy
  • Endoscopic surgery

A team of health care professionals including an oral surgeon, ENT specialist, oncologist, and nutritionist may work together to maintain and improve your overall health.

The survival rate of people with HPV linked oropharyngeal cancer is around 85-90%. HPV linked oropharyngeal cancer often responds well to the treatment.

Prompt diagnosis and immediate treatment can help to cut down the progress of this oral condition and provide a cancer-free life to the patient.

What are the preventive measures?

An HPV vaccine is available that can prevent the spread of the infection in the body and minimize the chance of developing genital, cervical or oropharyngeal cancer.

The vaccine should usually be taken around the age of 13. However, women can receive the HPV vaccine up to the age of 26 and men can take it up until the age of 21. (5)

Other preventive measures may include –

  • Use of condoms and dental dams during sexual activity
  • Avoid smoking and drinking alcohol as it may increase the risk of developing HPV linked oropharyngeal cancer
  • For people with low immunity, the maximum age to take the HPV vaccine is 26 years. However, if you have crossed the age limit, you can still consult a doctor and learn more about the HPV vaccine or any other alternatives
  • If you notice any unusual changes in your mouth like discolorations, sore throat and swelling at the back of the tongue, contact your nearest dentist to diagnose the condition at an early stage

Take away message

Human Papillomavirus is commonly a genital infection, but it can be found in the mouth and throat as well.

The oral symptoms of HPV infection may begin as benign warts which often remain undetected and resolve without causing any complication. Occasionally, some of the high strain HPV may develop oropharyngeal cancer in the mouth and throat.

HPV infected men with a habit of smoking are at a higher risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer as compared to females.


Although radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgical removal may help to treat this oral condition, preventive measures should be followed to eliminate its reoccurrence.

HPV vaccines are a new advancement to prevent the hazards of HPV infection in the mouth and body. The right time to get this vaccine is around the age of 13 years.

Lifestyle modifications and use of protection while having sexual intercourse can help to minimize the contraction of Human Papilloma Virus.


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