Understanding Health Risks

The Link Between HPV and Throat Cancer

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

You are probably more familiar with human papilloma virus (HPV) in relation to the vaccination and the risk of women developing cervical cancer. And while this is all still very prevalent, HPV is a growing culprit for another type of cancer: throat cancer.

Tamer Ghanem, M.D., Ph.D, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) and head and neck cancer surgeon at Henry Ford Health System, explains how HPV causes throat cancer, why physicians are seeing a rise in HPV-related throat cancer and what you can do to protect yourself.

Q: How does HPV cause throat cancer?

A: First, HPV itself is a common virus with many different subtypes. Just like with cervical cancer, HPV can lie dormant in the body for years before producing any symptoms of throat cancer.

With HPV-related throat cancer, oral sex is the main perpetrator. The virus lives in the throat, and in about 12,000 people per year, throat cancer develops – a number that has been growing at an alarming rate and that could surpass the number of HPV-related cervical cancers.

Q: Who is most affected by HPV-related throat cancer?

A: While HPV-related cancers typically don’t present themselves for years, we are seeing HPV-related throat cancer affecting people at a younger age than non-HPV-related throat cancers. And, while the virus doesn’t discriminate, the biggest rise is in white males.

Related topic: 5 Myths About HPV and the Vaccine Debunked

Q: Why is there more attention around HPV-related throat cancer now?

A: We have always known that HPV can cause throat cancer, but the rate we are seeing it now is alarming. Changes in sexual practices over the last 30 years or so – specifically a greater instance of oral sex and having multiple partners – are the main reasons for the increase in diagnoses.

It’s also concerning because, as a whole, we are seeing a decrease in head and neck cancers (cancers of the throat, tongue and mouth). These types of cancers are usually caused by alcohol and smoking. The only rise is in head and neck cancers is in HPV-related throat cancers, which is a clear indicator that it is a serious problem.

Q: Does throat cancer present any symptoms? How is it treated?

A: For the most part, it doesn’t present symptoms. And if there are, they tend to be symptoms people may not associate with cancer, like lingering ear pain, sore throat, spitting up blood, trouble swallowing or changes in voice.

Like all cancers, throat cancer is staged, and the later the stage, the more difficult it is to treat. We try to treat the cancer as minimally invasively as possible, with techniques such as the transoral robotic surgery (TORS), as even chemotherapy and radiation have significant side effects on the throat and mouth that can affect important functions like swallowing and talking abilities.

Q: How can people protect themselves from the virus?

A: Get vaccinated. That is the only way to protect yourself from HPV, and the vaccine protects against HPV that causes both throat and cervical cancer. The best time to get vaccinated is before being exposed to the virus – around age 11-12. After exposure, people should still get vaccinated, but be aware that the vaccine is less effective.

It’s also important to note that boys – as well as girls – should get the vaccine. HPV-related throat cancer is showing up heavily in males in part because they aren’t receiving the vaccination.

For more information on the HPV vaccine or the virus itself, schedule an appointment or find a primary care provider by calling 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936) or online at henryford.com.

 Dr. Tamer Ghanem leads the head and neck cancer surgery team at Henry Ford and is a renowned expert in transoral robotic surgery. He sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.