While it is well known that cervical cancer is caused by the humanpapilloma virus, HPV is also a major cause of certain types of head and neck cancers (aka oropharyngeal cancers) found in both men and women who practice oral sex.
In fact, according to a recent report published by the Annals of Internal Medicine researchers from the University of Florida, Baylor College of Medicine (and others) stated that 11 million men and 3 million women in the United States were infected with oral HPV between 2011 and 2014.
Those numbers, however, are continuing to grow, especially among those with more than 16 sexual partners during their lifetime (regardless of whether vaginal or oral intercourse). The study also found smokers; especially African Americans who smoked 20 or more cigarettes a day, were particularly vulnerable to increased risk of infection. In the meantime, the scientists found that men and women who smoked marijuana were (equally) far more prone to develop an oral cancer-causing strain of HPV.
Signs and symptoms
Although pap smears, as well as more recently employed HPV testing has helped reduce the rate of cervical cancer in women, the rate of oral cancers has increased. In fact, Dr. Erich Sturgis, professor of head and neck surgery at the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas stated that there are now “more of these HPV-related throat cancers in men than there are cervical cancers in women,” One reason is that the majority of individuals who have it never even realize they were infected until it is too late.
Oral HPV causes no early onset signs or symptoms in most people and often goes away on its own. At the same time, others who experience common signs of oral cancers such as frequent sore throats, enlarged lymph nodes, hoarseness, earaches, and pain when swallowing often mistake them for other illnesses.
Meanwhile, Sturgis was quick to point out that even though someone may not show any signs of infection the virus may stay hidden for years before causing tumors to grow in diseased tissue. By then it is too late.
The only sure way to prevent someone from getting HPV (aside from abstinence) is to have girls between the ages of 11-26 and boys, 11-21 vaccinated with either FDA-approved vaccines Cervarix and Gardasil It should be noted that a new form of Gardasil, available for the first time during the past 12 months adds five new high-risk HPV strains to its coverage, for even more cancer protection. According to the CDC, however, once someone is already infected, the vaccine is no help. Unfortunately, the agency noted that only 60% of tween and teens are being inoculated due to parental concerns
Side effects of the vaccine (which is given in 2 doses) may include body aches, chills, and fever. Other, reported, rarer side effects are dry mouth, difficulty breathing, and headache. In the meantime, the Mayo Clinic warns that patients who experience “streaks or inflammation at the injection site, hindered mobility, or joint pain should consult their doctor immediately.”
Note: Unlike HIV, which is spread by blood and semen, HPV is spread through the fluids of the mucosal membranes lining the vulva, vagina, mouth, and throat. While gynecologists continue to play an important role in both preventing as well as detecting HPV in women, the government is now considering a move to enlist the help of the more than 200,000 dentists across the country in detecting early signs of the oral forms of the disease, particularly since they see teens (not to mention older adults) more often than other doctors. It is also hoped that they may prove instrumental in helping develop a vaccination for those over the age of 26.