HPV Linked to Throat Cancer
Oral Sex Is Major Risk Factor
WebMD News Archive
Sex, Smoking, and Alcohol continued...
“The number of oropharyngeal cancers caused by HPV is probably larger than
the number caused by smoking and alcohol, at least in the U.S.,” Gillison
The new research included 86 men and 14 women with a new diagnosis of
oropharyngeal cancer and 200 sex- and age-matched people without cancer.
Both groups completed anonymous surveys examining sexual history and other
lifestyle factors, and oral swabs, blood, and saliva samples were collected
from all participants.
HPV 16, one of two HPV strains that cause 70% of cervical cancers and 90% of
head and neck cancers that are HPV-positive, was found in 72% of the
oropharyngeal tumors. Evidence of prior HPV 16 exposure, in the form of
antibodies to the virus, was also strongly linked to oropharyngeal cancer.
The researchers were also surprised to find that heavy smoking and drinking
did not seem to add to the risk in people with evidence of oral HPV
Vaccination’s Role Unclear
It is not yet clear if the HPV vaccine now approved for the prevention of
cervical cancer in women can also prevent HPV-driven throat cancer or other
malignancies that have been linked to HPV infection, including those of the
anus, vagina, and penis.
“There is every reason to believe that it will, but we don’t know that yet,”
Debbie Saslow, PhD, of the American Cancer Society tells WebMD that if the
vaccine is proven safe and effective in boys and young men, the indications for
its use will grow.
“It is everybody’s hope that the vaccine will eventually decrease the
incidence of many types of cancer,” she says.
Gillison says the main message from the current research is to doctors who
may not suspect head and neck cancer in patients without a history of heavy
smoking and drinking.
“This expands our idea of who might be at risk for head and neck cancers,”
she says. “There is a proven survival benefit to catching these cancers early,
so recognizing that people without traditional risk factors may still be at
risk is important.”