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Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a viral infection that can cause skin growths, warts and in some cases, cancer. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States, affecting over 79 million people. There are over 100 types of HPV—40 of which can spread through contact with genital areas, the mouth and throat. Roughly a dozen of these types of HPV can cause several types of cancer, including oropharyngeal, anal, penile, cervical, vulvar, and vaginal.
“Your body’s immune system will often kill the infection before skin growths appear, making it difficult to determine whether or not you’ve been infected,” said said Benjamin DiJoseph, D.O., OB/GYN at Inspira Medical Group. “Most people will be rid of the infection after a year or two; however, it does linger in some people and over time can lead to throat and mouth cancer.”
If left unchecked, HPV can cause cancer of the oropharynx, which includes the back of the throat, base of the tongue and tonsils. This is known as oropharyngeal cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that HPV causes 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States. Although all people are susceptible to the disease, men are twice as likely to be diagnosed with this type of cancer, due in part to lifestyle factors including poor diet and tobacco and alcohol use.
“The HPV vaccine, which is recommended for 11- to 12-year-olds, can help to prevent the disease and reduce the risk of oropharyngeal cancer,” explained Dr. DiJoseph.
The vaccine protects against HPV types 16 and 18, two high-risk HPV strains that cause about 70 percent of cervical cancers and an even higher percentage of some other cancers.
It is important to note that the vaccine only prevents new HPV infections, and does not treat existing diseases. That is why the vaccine is most effective at a young age, before a patient has been exposed to the virus.
For adults who are sexually active, condoms and dental dams can lower the risk of passing HPV from one person to another. Limiting tobacco use and alcohol consumption, and eating a well-balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables may also reduce your chances of developing oropharyngeal cancer.
If you suspect you may have been exposed to HPV, speak with your health care provider about getting tested. Although there is not a cure for the virus itself, symptoms such as genital warts may be treated with prescription medication. Even if symptoms aren’t present, you can still get HPV and pass it to others.
If you are concerned about oropharyngeal cancer, notify your doctor if the following symptoms arise:
The best way to prevent HPV and reduce your risk of related oropharyngeal cancer is to get vaccinated before you become sexually active. Even if you have received the vaccine, it’s important to follow safe sex practices.
Inspira Health is a high reliability organization (HRO), which means safety is the top priority for patients and staff.
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