What is human papilloma virus (HPV)?

HPV is a sexually transmitted virus. There are more than 150 subtypes of HPV that can infect the genital area and the throat (oropharyngeal HPV).

How common is oropharyngeal human papilloma virus (HPV) infection of the throat?

A recent study found that 7 percent of Americans 14 to 69 years old are infected with oropharyngeal HPV. The same study found that the prevalence has increased significantly over the past three decades, and that more men than women have oropharyngeal HPV infection.

The most frequent subtype of oropharyngeal HPV detected is HPV-16, a high-risk subtype of HPV for oropharyngeal (throat) cancer. About 2/3 of oropharyngeal cancers have HPV DNA in them. Infection with HPV-16 occurs in about 1 percent of men and women.

How is oropharyngeal human papilloma virus (HPV) acquired?

Evidence strongly suggests that oropharyngeal HPV is predominantly transmitted by sexual contact. An increase in oral sex is suspected as the cause of the increase in the prevalence of oropharyngeal HPV infection, although several sexual behaviors seem to be related to HPV prevalence.

The risk of infection increases with an increasing number of lifetime or recent sexual partners for any type of sexual behavior (vaginal sex, oral sex). With 20 or more lifetime sexual partners, the prevalence of oropharyngeal HPV infection reaches 20 percent. Smokers are also at greater risk than nonsmokers, with current heavy smokers at particularly high risk.

What are the signs and symptoms of oropharyngeal human papilloma virus (HPV) infection?

Most people with oropharyngeal HPV infections have no symptoms and therefore do not realize that they are infected and can transmit the virus to a partner.

What are the consequences of oropharyngeal human papilloma virus (HPV) infection?

Tonsillar HPV infection can cause oropharyngeal cancer. An increase in the incidence of oropharyngeal cancer has paralleled the increased prevalence of tonsillar HPV infection. However, the vast majority of people with tonsillar HPV infections do not develop cancer because the subtypes of HPV with which they are infected are not linked to development of cancer. Although millions of Americans have tonsillar HPV, fewer than 15,000 get HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers annually.

Some oropharyngeal cancers are not related to HPV infection, but rather with tobacco and alcohol use. People with HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers tend to be younger and are less likely to be smokers and drinkers.

Are there any signs that are specific for human papilloma virus (HPV)-positive oropharyngeal cancer?

The first sign is often having trouble with swallowing. Other signs are:

  • Coughing up blood
  • A lump on the neck or in the cheek
  • Hoarseness that doesn’t go away

Unfortunately, these are late signs of the disease.

Other potential signs and symptoms of oral cancers are:

  • Sore throat
  • A white or red patch on the tonsils
  • Jaw pain or swelling
  • Trouble swallowing that is new

These signs don’t necessarily mean that you have cancer, but if any signs are present for longer than two weeks, you should see your doctor.