HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. What you didn’t know? HPV is thought to cause 70 percent of throat and mouth cancers, with men particularly at risk.

Your Health, Men's Health | 4 years ago

Oral Cancer Caused by HPV Is Hitting Men Especially Hard

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. What you didn’t know? HPV is thought to cause 70 percent of throat and mouth cancers, with men particularly at risk.  

You’ve probably heard of HPV, and you might know it’s a leading cause of cervical cancer in women. What you might not know? It can also cause a different kind of cancer, oral (tonsil and base of tongue) cancer, which affects men four times more frequently than women.

HPV – the most common sexually transmitted infection in the US – can cause deadly throat and mouth cancers, even decades after lying dormant. It’s been described as a silent epidemic and can be difficult to talk about – even when celebrities like Michael Douglas put a well-known face to the disease.

The good news? There’s a vaccine available that prevents 90 percent of infections caused by high risk, or cancer-causing, HPV strains. The HPV vaccine has been studied and proven to reduce the chance of developing a cervical cancer. While studies have yet to show a decrease in oral cancers with vaccination, studies have recently shown that HPV vaccination can prevent oral infection. 

For those who have developed an HPV-related oral cancer, current treatment for oropharyngeal cancer is very effective.

“The vast majority of our patients are success stories,” says Zvonimir L. Milas, MD, FACS, medical director of the Head and Neck Cancer Center at Levine Cancer Institute.

Learn more about oral HPV cancer and how to protect against it.

What is oral HPV cancer?

Over time, certain strains of HPV can lead to cancers of the cervix, anus and throat.

“HPV can lie dormant in the tonsils or the back of the tongue for many years. The tonsils and base of tongue function like lymph nodes and clear infections in the throat have,” says Dr. Milas. “Even if you get your tonsils removed, you still have lymphoid tissue on the back of the tongue, and that oral lymph tissue is where – for whatever reason – HPV lies dormant.”

In the United States, at any given time, between 30 and 50 percent of the general population harbors HPV. Most people clear the infection. But for some reason that’s still unclear, men develop oral HPV cancers more commonly than women do – in fact, they’re about four times more likely to develop it. 

What is screening and treatment like?

Although women can get a Pap smear – a procedure that tests for cervical cancer and precancerous changes – there’s currently no way to screen for HPV. Instead, men with oral HPV cancer often come to their doctors with this cancer in the early stages, typically after noticing a lump in the neck.

Most people with oral HPV cancer are successfully treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, which “melts” the tumor away. Some people, if the cancer is caught early, can have just surgery or just radiation which reduces side effects. Combined chemoradiation typically takes between 6 and 7 weeks and is followed by several weeks of recovery.

“Most everybody will have some degree of chronic dry mouth,” says Dr. Milas of the treatment side effects. “The majority of people will swallow and eat normally. Changes in taste eventually return to almost normal, and most patients lead completely normal lives afterwards.”

Get the vaccine to protect yourself

The best way to prevent HPV infection is with the Gardasil vaccine, which is available to any person younger than 27. Gardasil protects against strains of HPV that cause cancer, and the CDC recommends that all children be vaccinated at 11 or 12 years of age.

“This vaccine reduces the risk of contracting HPV – and it protects the individual from any developing the cancers associated with HPV in the future,“ says Dr. Milas. “It’s not something to be afraid of; it’s something to proactively treat against just like you would with mumps, measles, and rubella.”