7 Signs of HPV-positive Oropharyngeal Cancer

This vaccine awareness month, make sure to get vaccinated against HPV to protect yourself from HPV-related cancer.


Immunization Awareness Month

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted disease with over 79 million Americans infected, predominantly in their late teens and early 20s. There are more than 150 subtypes of HPV that can infect the genital area and throat (called oropharyngeal HPV). Many people are exposed to oral HPV in their life. Around 10% of men and 3.6% of women have oral HPV, but for most people the infection clears within one to two years.

The most frequent subtype of oropharyngeal HPV found is HPV-16 which has a high risk of causing throat cancer. HPV-16 causes nearly 70% of all oropharyngeal cancers in the United States. It usually takes several years after the infection for cancer to develop, and it is unclear whether HPV is the sole cause or if other factors such as smoking or chewing tobacco interact with HPV to cause oral cancer. Though HPV is not known to cause other head and neck cancers, other subtypes are related to cancers in other parts of the body, which is why it is vital for people to get the HPV vaccination.

In addition to the risk of developing cancer, people with oropharyngeal HPV often have no symptoms, therefore they do not realize they are infected with HPV. Further, there is no approved HPV test to find HPV in the mouth or throat—yet another reason why it is vital for people to get vaccinated, if they are eligible. Getting vaccinated drastically reduces a person’s chance of developing an HPV infection. Regardless, it is important to continue to visit your doctor as they may notice signs of throat cancer or oral HPV during a routine exam and in some cases your dentist might detect the signs.

Here are 7 signs that people can look for that are specific to HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer:

  1. Coughing up blood
  2. A lump on the neck or in the cheek
  3. Hoarseness that doesn’t go away
  4. Sore throat
  5. A white or red patch on the tonsils
  6. Jaw pain or swelling
  7. Trouble swallowing that is new

There are several ways to decrease the risk of getting HPV or oropharyngeal cancer. The first is to avoid tobacco products, avoid smoke from other people’s cigarettes, and limit the amount of alcohol you drink. Another way is to exercise caution and use protection when engaging in sexual activity. When used consistently and correctly, condoms and dental dams can lower the chance that HPV is transmitted. The most effective way to keep from getting HPV and HPV-related cancers is getting vaccinated. The CDC recommends the vaccine for children age 11 and up, young women through age 26 and young men through age 21.

This vaccine awareness month, make sure to get vaccinated against HPV to protect yourself from HPV-related cancer. To learn more about oral cancers, check out our research page, and consider donating to the THANC Foundation to support research and education in the early detection and treatment of thyroid, head, and neck cancer.