How is oropharyngeal human papilloma virus (HPV) infection found?

There is no test that can find early signs of HPV infection of the throat. Some cancerous or precancerous oropharyngeal HPV lesions may be detected during screening or examination by a dentist or doctor, but most are found by testing in persons who already have signs or symptoms.

To inspect hard-to-see areas of the throat, larynx (voice box), and the base of the tongue, doctors may use small mirrors. For certain structures in the throat that can’t be seen easily with mirrors, flexible laryngoscopes and pharyngoscopes can penetrate deeper to permit the doctor to see them directly.

The doctor may want to perform a biopsy of areas that look suspicious for cancer. A biopsy is a small sample of cells taken with a thin, hollow needle or forceps. The cells are then viewed under a microscope to look for signs of cancer. Biopsy samples from throat cancers may be tested for the presence of HPV DNA. The presence of HPV DNA signals a cancer that is more responsive to treatment than one that is HPV-negative.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/04/2018.

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