The human papillomavirus (HPV) is commonly known for its association with cervical cancer and genital warts. But, HPV is also a risk factor for several types of cancers including oropharyngeal cancer. Oropharyngeal cancer includes cancers that affect the back of the tongue, soft palate, tonsils, and side of the throat.
In recent years, we have seen a rise in oropharyngeal cancers, highlighting the need for proactive management to address oral HPV. Here, we break down what you need to know about oral HPV and how you can support your immune system to defend against it.
What are the Prevalence Rates of Oral HPV?
It is estimated that around 7 percent of Americans aged 14 to 69 have detectable HPV in their oral tissue. The prevalence of oral HPV is higher in men than in women, 10.1% compared to 3.6%.
The rates of oral cancers have increased between 2003 and 2013 by about 3.4% per year. Rising rates of HPV are thought to be due to rising rates of HPV infection in the population mostly due to changes in sexual behavior. Today, the average person has a greater number of sexual partners and it is more common to engage in oral sex.
Oral sex is thought to be the main contributor to the increasing rates of oropharyngeal HPV. A study of oral HPV in men found infection rates increased with prevalence and increased frequency of oral sex. There were also increasing rates in men who smoked, were in non-monogamous relationships, and had a partner with oral or genital HPV.
How Is HPV Transmitted?
HPV is highly transmittable and is mainly contracted through skin-to-skin or oral contact. Touching the genitals or engaging in oral sex with an infected individual can be enough to transmit HPV. Because HPV is so easily transmitted, most sexually active individuals will contract some strain of HPV in their lifetime. The CDC estimates that 90% of men and 80% of women will be infected with a strain of HPV.
Now, we know what you are thinking—“oh no, am going to get cancer?”
If I have Oral HPV, Am I Going to Get Cancer?
Like genital HPV, most individuals that contract oral HPV will not progress to oropharyngeal cancer. It takes many years for oropharyngeal cancers to develop from an HPV infection. Between the time of infection and cancer development, the immune system often clears the HPV and renders it dormant within the cells.
Nevertheless, there is still risk if HPV remains persistent over time. The most common strain of HPV found in oral infections is HPV-16. HPV-16 is a high-risk strain that can cause cancers if it proliferates over time. Approximately 1 percent of men and women are infected by HPV-16.
Are you ready to respond to HPV?
What are the Symptoms of Oral HPV?
Like other forms of HPV, in the early stages, oral HPV infections often cause no symptoms at all. Oral HPV that is progressing into oropharyngeal cancers may cause symptoms including:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Lump on the neck or in the cheek.
- Chronic hoarseness
- Sore throat that doesn’t go away
- White or red patches on the tonsils
- Jaw pain or swelling
- Unintentional weight loss
If you notice any of these symptoms or changes, please contact your doctor.
How Do you Know if you Have Oral HPV?
Oral HPV is not included in regular screening guidelines and practices. There is no test to detect for early signs of HPV cellular changes in the throat like we do with the Pap Smear. However, HPV testing can be done to detect tissue samples for the presence of HPV.
For these reasons, many individuals will not know that they have been infected with oral HPV until it has progressed into a cancerous state. Addressing the immune system and limiting risk factors can help reduce overall risk and prevent complications.
How to Limit Infection and Complications of HPV
- Reduce the number of sexual partners: Reducing sexual behavior (vaginal sex, oral sex) is one way to reduce and prevent infection rates. Because HPV is transmitted through sexual contact and touch, limiting sexual partners will lead to less possible exposure to HPV. Using protection can partially help protect against HPV but it is not 100 percent effective.
- Quit smoking: Smoking puts individuals at greater risk for cancers, especially those in the respiratory pathway, and is associated with an increased risk of oropharyngeal cancers. Not all oropharyngeal cancers are related to HPV. Tobacco, alcohol use, and poor lifestyle habits alone can also cause oropharyngeal cancers. Together the combination of smoking and oral HPV can significantly increase one’s risk.
- Reduce alcohol intake: Alcohol use is another risk factor for oral cancers. Reducing alcohol consumption and drinking mindfully when needed can help support overall health and the risk of HPV complications.
- Support the immune system: The immune system is thought to be the hallmark of whether an HPV infection continues to persist over time or is eradicated. You can support your immune system by getting adequate sleep, eating 7-8 servings of vegetables a day, engaging in moderate exercise, managing stressors, getting sunlight, and forming healthy relationships. You can learn more about supporting your immune system here on papillex.com.
Can Papillex help with Oral HPV?
Papillex was formulated to help correct nutrient deficiencies associated with persistent HPV, and to provide immune-supporting nutrients and herbs. Since the HPV strains that cause cellular changes of the cervix are the same strains that contribute to oropharyngeal cancer, the ingredients in Papillex can help support the immune system response to oral HPV.