April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, a time when dental professionals join with surgeons and other medical professionals to highlight the dangers oral cancer brings, and to call attention to the progress made in fighting this disease. Studies found that people with poor oral health are at an increased risk of being infected by oral human papillomavirus(HPV).
Chronic gum inflammation is linked to a virus that can cause cancers of the head and neck. Mouth ulcers and chronic inflammation in general are caused by poor oral health may create an “entry portal” for HPVs. Oral HPV infections cause 40-80 percent of throat cancers. But the good news is maintaining good oral hygiene and good oral health can reduce the risk.
What is HPV?
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. HPV is easily spread from sexual skin-to-skin contact with someone who has the virus. This virus can affect areas including the throat, mouth, feet, fingers, nails, anus and cervix – areas of the skin and the mucus membrane that line the body.
Oral HPV is transmitted to the mouth by oral sex, or possibly in other ways. Oral HPV infection can be divided into two types. The first are low-risk HPV types that are not a cause of cancer, but cause benign tumors and warts in the oral cavity. The second are high-risk HPV types that can cause throat cancers. HPVs that infect the mouth and throat and cause cancers are called Oropharyngeal Cancer. HPVs are thought to cause 70% of Oropharyngeal Cancers in the United States. It usually takes years after being infected with HPV for cancer to develop.
Symptoms of Oropharyngeal Cancer
Symptoms may include:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Chronic sore throat
- Difficulty swallowing
- Unexplained weight loss
Unfortunately not everyone displays symptoms. Make sure to see your doctor right away if you experience any symptoms that worry you!
The HPV Vaccine
The HPV vaccine is safe and effective at preventing HPV-related infections and cancers. The vaccine protects against the types of HPV that can cause oropharyngeal cancers, so it may also prevent oropharyngeal cancers.
CDC recommends HPV vaccination for 11- to 12-year-olds. CDC also recommends HPV vaccination for everyone through age 26 years, if not vaccinated already. HPV vaccination prevents new HPV infections, but does not treat existing infections or diseases. This is why the HPV vaccine works best when given before any exposure to HPV.
American Cancer Society Prevention Tips
Oral cancer is a highly preventable disease and also very treatable, if caught early. Here are some prevention tips from the American Cancer Society:
- Avoid smoking and alcohol
- Avoid HPV infection
- Eat a healthy diet
- Wear properly fitted dentures
- Treat pre-cancerous growths
- Get regular dental checkups