Does HPV cause throat cancer?

HPV can cause cervical cancer, but did you know it also can cause head and neck cancers? A surgical oncologist with the Norton Cancer Institute Head & Neck Tumor Program explains the importance of vaccines and screenings for HPV-related cancers.

You’ve likely heard of human papillomavirus (HPV) and may know that it can cause warts on the skin, genitals and mouth. Some variations of HPV cause cancers of the cervix, genitals and anus. Those are not the only places HPV can potentially cause cancer. Research suggests that HPV can cause head, neck and throat cancer. Here’s what you need to know.

HPV can cause cancer

HPV is a virus that spreads by coming into contact with the mucous membranes of an infected person. Typically this happens during sexual contact, including vaginal, anal and oral sex. Most people with HPV have no symptoms. A healthy immune system normally will rid the body of HPV without treatment. Some types of HPV cause warts on the skin, genitals or mouth. Some types of high-risk HPV can cause cancer.

Head and neck cancer care

At the Norton Cancer Institute Head & Neck Tumor Program, see providers from multiple specialties in a single day, including medical oncology, radiation oncology, cutaneous medical oncology, plastic surgery and otolaryngology. Multiple viewpoints and areas of expertise improve care for every patient.

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HPV-related cancers include:

  • Cervical cancer
  • Oropharyngeal cancers: Most of these cancers, which develop in the throat (usually the tonsils or the back of the tongue), are caused by HPV (70% of those in the United States). The number of new cases is increasing each year, and oropharyngeal cancers are now the most common HPV-related cancer in the United States.
  • Anal cancer: Over 90% of anal cancers are caused by HPV. The number of new cases and deaths from anal cancer are increasing each year. Anal cancer is nearly twice as common in women as in men.

There are rare HPV-related cancers of the vulva, vagina and penis.

Symptoms and treatment

“Some HPV infections have no symptoms, such as those in the cervix,” said Paul A. Tennant, M.D., head and neck surgical oncologist with Norton Cancer Institute Head and Neck Tumor Program. “That’s why routine cervical screenings are important for people who have a cervix.”

Other signs of HPV can be warts or itching.

“There is no cure for HPV right now,” Dr. Tennant said. “That is why vaccination is so important.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends children, teens and young adults get the HPV vaccine as soon as they are eligible.

Cancer symptoms in the head and neck range from mild to severe and can include:

  • Changes in the voice, such as hoarseness or difficulty speaking
  • Ear pain
  • Lumps or swelling in the throat or neck
  • Sore throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Some difficulty breathing
  • Pain in the side of the neck

If you have new, persistent or worsening symptoms, call a health care provider.

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