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Smoking, drinking alcohol, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) all can increase your risk of throat cancer, but genital human papillomavirus (HPV) has become a leading cause of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States. In fact, some 9,000 people are diagnosed each year with throat cancer that may be caused by HPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it is about four times more common in men than women. In fact, by 2020, the number of HPV-related oral cancers in middle-aged men is expected to surpass the rates of cervical cancer in women, according to Susan Maples, DDS.
Symptoms, Screening, and Treatment
Doctors generally categorize throat cancer according to the area of the pharynx—the nasopharynx, the oropharynx, or the hypopharynx—that it affects. The oropharynx is the middle portion of the throat located by the mouth and includes the soft palate, tonsils, and back of the tongue.
The signs and symptoms can also vary, depending on the area affected. Oropharyngeal cancer symptoms can include:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Trouble opening the mouth
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Voice changes
- Unexplained weight loss
- Coughing up blood
Some people, however, may have no signs or symptoms at all.
Unfortunately, there are no simple screening tests for throat cancer and, in some cases, there are no warning signs until the disease has started to advance. Be sure to speak with your doctor as soon as possible if you begin to develop any related symptoms.
To determine the presence of cancer, your doctor may order a series of tests, including a biopsy, x-ray, computerized tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or positron emission tomography (PET) scan of the head and/or neck. Once you have been diagnosed with throat cancer, treatment may include surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy.
How Does HPV Cause Throat Cancer?
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States, according to the CDC. While it is not harmful to most people and can clear up on its own, it can lead to cervical cancer in women and throat cancer in people infected with oral HPV.
Cancer caused by HPV can take years to develop. It’s unclear whether having HPV alone can cause oropharyngeal cancer or whether such factors as smoking or chewing tobacco can increase the likelihood of developing the disease. According to the CDC, about 7 percent of people in the U.S. have oral HPV and 1 percent have the type that is associated with oropharyngeal cancer.
Men are twice as likely as women to develop throat cancer linked to HPV, according to research conducted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The research also shows that HPV is less likely to clear up on its own in men than in women. There are studies that suggest oral HPV can be passed through open-mouthed kissing and oral sex, but additional research is needed to determine exactly how the infection is passed from one person to another.
The FDA has yet to approve a screening test for oral HPV, nor has it been determined whether HPV vaccines can prevent oropharyngeal cancer, but doctors recommend practicing safe sex, which can reduce your chances of contracting oral HPV.
To reduce the risk of all types of cancers, the American Cancer Society suggests that people quit or refrain from smoking, reduce heavy alcohol use, and eat a healthy and well-balanced diet.
How to Protect Yourself from HPV -Related Throat Cancer
Because there is no screening test for HPV-related throat cancer, it’s important to that your dentist or hygienist do an general oral cancer screening, according to Dr. Maples, who’s also the author of “Blabber Mouth: 77 Secrets Only Your Mouth Can Tell You To Live a Healthier, Happier, Sexier Life.” Here are some additional tips to protect yourself from HPV-related throat cancer, according to Dr. Maples:
- An HPV infection can clear often clear up on its own in those with a strong immune system, so it’s important to eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, avoid smoking, avoid stress, and refrain from heavy substance use. If the infection isn’t allowed to clear up on its own, your risk of cancer will increase.
- The HPV vaccine is covered by health insurance until age 21 in boys and 26 in girls, but if you’re already beyond the covered benefit age, it may be beneficial to pay the $200-300 out of pocket to get vaccinated at a pharmacy.
- If your dentist or hygienist doesn’t include an oral cancer screening in your scheduled check-ups, ask for one since an early diagnosis can protect you from swallowing and chewing problems, as well as disfigurement from surgery.
Originally published in May 2016 and updated.