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HPV/Genital Warts Health Center

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HPV Linked to Throat Cancer

Oral Sex Is Major Risk Factor

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 says.

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 infection.

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,” Gillison says.

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.”

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