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Nurse checking patient's lymph nodes

Cases of oropharyngeal (mouth and throat) cancers have been on the rise in recent years, especially among young people who do not have the classic risk factors of using tobacco or drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. Researchers have found that oral infection with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) has a clear association with subsequent development of oropharyngeal cancer. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to minimize your chances of getting an HPV infection and, in turn, HPV-derived throat or mouth cancer.

What is HPV?

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States—it’s estimated that more than half of all sexually active people will contract some type of HPV in their lifetimes. There are more than 100 types of the virus, and around 40 of them can be spread through skin-to-skin contact, including vaginal, anal and oral sex. For most people, the virus clears from the body within one or two years, but in some cases it can persist. Some types of HPV are low-risk and cause no or minor symptoms such as genital warts, while other types are considered high-risk and can eventually cause cancers of the cervix, genitals, throat, or mouth.

How is head and neck cancer linked to HPV?

According to the CDC, HPV may be responsible for around 70% of oropharyngeal cancers in the country. This may be because of an increase in the prevalence of unprotected oral sex, which allows for the easy spread of oral infections with the cancer-causing types of the HPV virus. However, it’s still not clear if just having HPV is enough to cause oropharyngeal cancers, or if risk factors like using tobacco or drinking heavily work together with the HPV virus to cause cancer. Current research suggests that HPV-derived head and neck cancers are limited to the back of the mouth, base of the tongue, tonsils and the throat—it is not thought to cause other head and neck cancers like laryngeal, lip, nose, esophageal or salivary gland cancer.

What are the symptoms of HPV-derived oropharyngeal cancers?

Some mouth and throat cancers caused by HPV do not present any obvious symptoms. However, for people that do experience symptoms, they commonly include:

  • A persistent sore throat
  • Earaches
  • Hoarseness
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • A lump in the neck, mouth or throat
  • Sores in the mouth or throat
  • Numbness in the mouth, throat or neck area
  • Unexplained bleeding of the nose, mouth or throat

Can the HPV vaccine prevent HPV-derived oral and throat cancers?

Gardasil9, the HPV vaccine manufactured by Merck, was initially approved to prevent genital warts as well as cervical and other types of genital cancers. However, the vaccine was approved in 2020 for the prevention of oropharyngeal cancers as well. It can be administered to children as young as 9 years old and can prevent up to six types of cancer. The vaccine must be given prior to exposure to HPV, so it offers decreasing efficacy for older people who are more likely to have contracted the virus already. It’s typically recommended for people under the age of 26, but you can talk to your doctor about receiving the vaccine even if you are older than that.

How Moffitt approaches cancer in the mouth or throat from HPV

Moffitt Cancer Center’s Head and Neck Oncology Program features a multispecialty team that includes:

  • Surgeons
  • Medical oncologists
  • Radiation oncologists
  • Endocrinologists
  • Pathologists
  • Radiologists
  • Supportive care professionals

Each of our patients receives an individualized, evidence-based treatment plan that’s designed to achieve the best possible outcome. As the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center that’s based in Florida, we are proud to offer a broad spectrum of services, treatments and therapies all in one convenient location—including diagnostic procedures, pain management support, speech and swallowing rehabilitation and more.

Moffitt also operates a robust clinical trials program, spearheading the research into new methods of disease prevention, therapies and treatments for oropharyngeal cancer and other types of head and neck cancer. This means that our patients have access to world-class care as well as novel treatments that aren’t available anywhere else.

If you think you may have HPV-derived oral or throat cancer, contact Moffitt Cancer Center at 1-888-663-3488 or fill out a new patient registration form online. We do not require referrals to see a member of our team.


HPV and Oropharyngeal Cancer | CDC

HPV & Head and Neck Cancer 

Prospective Study Links HPV Detection in the Mouth to Head and Neck Cancer