Single Men: Higher Risk of Cancer-Linked Oral HPV?
But overall risk is low, and virus usually clears within a year, study found
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The reasons aren't clear, according to Pierce Campbell. But she speculated that single men tend to have riskier sexual behaviors. As for smoking, it's possible that inflammation in the oral cavity, and a dampened immune system, make people more vulnerable to an HPV infection.
"That's a plausible explanation," Simard agreed. "It makes sense biologically." He added, though, that smokers may also just happen to have different sexual practices than nonsmokers. "Is smoking a proxy for some risky sexual behavior?" he said.
Regardless, smoking is a bad idea -- so the fact that it's linked to oral HPV infection is another strike against it, according to Pierce Campbell. "If you smoke, quit. If you don't smoke, don't start," she said.
But a big question this study doesn't answer, Simard said, is, what are the risk factors for a persistent oral HPV infection? "It's the persistent infections we're worried about," he said.
Since persistent oral HPV infections are thankfully rare, it will take a large, long-term study to figure out why some people continue to harbor the virus, according to Simard.
There are two vaccines against the most common cancer-linked HPV strains. Experts recommend that all children ages 11 and 12 be vaccinated, which involves a series of three shots. Older girls and young women up to age 26 are advised to get "catch-up" shots if they've never been vaccinated. The same advice goes for boys and men ages 13 to 21.
The vaccines -- Merck's Gardasil and GlaxoSmithKline's Cervarix -- are known to ward off genital and anal HPV infections. But studies have not yet shown whether they prevent oral infections.
But, Pierce Campbell said, "we have no reason to believe that these vaccines will not be effective against oral HPV infection."