April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month
Most of us are aware of some habits and conditions that have been linked to oral cancer. Cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, stomach problems such as reflux, and sun exposure are understood by most of us to be risk factors for cancers in and around the mouth. But did you know that a super common sexually transmitted disease can cause oral cancer as well? Although most dental offices screen for oral cancer, not all of them tell you exactly what they are looking for. Some providers don’t talk about sexually transmitted diseases and how they can show up in your mouth as cancer because it can be an uncomfortable conversation. So, let’s go ahead and get it out in the open.
HPV can cause cancer in your mouth and throat!
Quick Facts about HPV
- HPV is the abbreviation for Human Papilloma Virus.
- There are over 40 strains of HPV and most of them do not have obvious symptoms.
- HPV is responsible for over half of all oral cancers.
- Over 80% of individuals in the US will become infected with HPV in their lifetime.
- This is the most common sexually transmitted infection.
- Your body can rid you of the virus but it is the leading cause of oropharyngeal cancers.
HOW TO YOU GET IT?
HPV is transmitted through skin to skin contact. Anyone infected with the HPV virus has the potential of spreading it to another person through sexual activities. Although it’s not as common, pregnant women can pass this virus to their baby.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
You could have HPV for years and not have any obvious symptoms. Sometimes the virus resolves and sometimes lesions form. Warts, blisters, white or red spots can pop up from time to time on or around the genitals, in the mouth and throat, on fingers and other body parts as well. Several strains of the virus could be active at the same time. When we do a head and neck exam at the dental office, we are carefully checking soft tissues for signs of this virus.
We are looking for lesions like this:
(a common HPV lesion near a uvula)
WHAT STEPS CAN YOU TAKE TO PREVENT AND DETECT IT?
If you are an adult, your first line of defense is safe sex. Women also have the advantage of annual screenings and pap smears at the gynecologist! Unfortunately at this time, there is no blood test to detect HPV in men so it is very important for everyone to inspect their private parts and mouths on a regular basis. As soon as you see something out of the ordinary, just get it checked out. If it’s nothing, awesome…. if it’s a disease, at least you caught it early.
The great news for our youth is that they can now get vaccinated against several strains of HPV:
Cancer.gov: “Three vaccines are approved by the FDA to prevent HPV infection: Gardasil, Gardasil 9, and Cervarix. All three vaccines prevent infections with HPV types 16 and 18, two high-risk HPVsthat cause about 70% of cervical cancers and an even higher percentage of some of the other HPV-associated cancers (9, 10). Gardasil also prevents infection with HPV types 6 and 11, which cause 90% of genital warts (17). Gardasil 9 prevents infection with the same four HPV types plus five additional high-risk HPV types (31, 33, 45, 52, and 58).”
I hope you all live an HPV free life but if not, you’d to know that you are NOT alone. Remember that over 80% of us will contract some type of HPV in our lives.