Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most commonly diagnosed sexually transmitted disease in the U.S. and cases of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer — a cancer that develops on the back and sides of the throat, tonsils and base of the tongue — in middle-age men have tripled in the past three decades.
But did you know that vaccines can help reverse this trend? August is Immunization Awareness Month and a good opportunity to learn more.
“Nearly all sexually active men and women get exposed to HPV at some point in their lives,” says Dr. Tom Thomas, director, Head and Neck Reconstructive Surgery and Transoral Robotic Surgery at Atlantic Health System’s Morristown Medical Center. “Symptoms may develop decades after you become infected, so it’s often impossible to know who transmitted the virus to you.”
You’re at higher risk for oral HPV if you:
• Haven’t been vaccinated against HPV
• Have had unprotected oral sex
• Have many sexual partners
• Have a sexual partner who has had many sexual partners
• Started having sex when you were 16 or younger
The good news is that when caught early, treatment for HPV-related throat cancer is often successful.
Symptoms include a lump on the neck that isn’t painful but doesn’t go away, a sore throat or difficulty swallowing that doesn’t go away after 3-4 weeks, unexplained weight loss and a change in voice.
If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor right away. If you have a history of known HPV infection or other sexually transmitted diseases, see a head and neck expert.
“Even with no symptoms, you can pass HPV on to others, and you can get HPV from someone who doesn’t show any symptoms,” says Dr. James Wong, medical director, Leonard B. Kahn Head and Neck Cancer Institute at Morristown Medical Center.
As one of the leaders of the new Atlantic HPV Center, the country’s first center dedicated to the diagnosis, treatment, research and survivorship of HPV-associated cancers of the head and neck, Dr. Wong points out that understanding HPV and cancer can mean catching the disease early.
Unfortunately, experts say that persisting misconceptions associated with throat cancers caused by HPV create stigmas and fears and prevent many patients from having important conversations with loved ones and doctors.
“We need to overcome the embarrassment associated with throat cancer caused by HPV,” says Dr. Thomas. “Anyone who’s sexually active is at risk for getting HPV, even if you’ve had only one sexual partner.”
There are more than 150 types of HPV, but the HPV vaccine protects against both types 16 and 18, which cause the majority of cases of oropharyngeal cancer. More widespread use of the vaccine could lower the rate of high-risk HPV infection in men and women and consequently lower the rate of HPV-related cancer in both sexes. The Centers for Disease Control recommends getting the HPV vaccine for children at ages 11-12, before they are exposed to HPV, in order to protect them from certain cancers later in life. However, those who have already been infected can still get some protection from the vaccine, which is recommended for females aged 13 through 26 and males aged 13 through 21 who were not adequately immunized previously.