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Q&A: HPV and throat cancer

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Throat Cancer.jpgThe number of throat cancer cases is on the rise, with about 12,000-15,000 people expected to be diagnosed with throat cancer in 2013.

The biggest reason for this increase is the human papillomavirus (HPV) -- the same sexually transmitted infection that causes cervical cancer. In fact, by 2020, HPV may cause more throat cancers than cervical cancers.

We recently spoke with Erich Sturgis, M.D., professor of Head and Neck Surgery, about HPV and throat cancer. Here's what he had to say.

What's the connection between HPV and cancer?
There are over 100 types of HPV, and they're all spread through contact. Some of the most dangerous types are especially spread through sexual contact, including oral sex. Many people will contract HPV at some point, but the body often clears the infection.

Some strains of HPV cause warts on the skin or genital warts; others cause papillomas, which are benign growths that can occur inside the nose, throat or voicebox.

The most high-risk strains of HPV cause cancer. At this point, HPV has been linked to throat cancer (also known as oropharyngeal cancer, cancers of the tonsils or base of tongue) and cervical cancers, as well as anal, vulvar and vaginal cancers.

Does the HPV vaccine protect against HPV-related throat cancers?
Yes, parents can protect their kids from these HPV-related cancers, including throat cancer, by having them get the HPV vaccine, which protects against the types of HPV that cause most warts and cancers.

It's best for your kids to get the HPV vaccine by age 11-12. But girls who haven't gotten the vaccine yet can get it between ages 13-26, and boys can get it between ages 13-21.

Keep in mind that the HPV vaccine is most effective if it's administered before a person becomes sexually active, as it may not be effective if you've already gotten an HPV infection.

What about people who are too old to get the HPV vaccine? Is there anything they can do to protect against HPV-related cancers, including throat cancer?
Adults can protect themselves from HPV and HPV-related cancers by staying in a monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner. Condom use may reduce your chances of getting an HPV infection, but it doesn't fully protect you.

Starting at age 30, women should also get the HPV test when they get their Pap test. Unfortunately, there's no FDA-approved HPV test for throat infection or exposure at this time.

What other factors put a person at risk for throat cancer?
Smokers are most at risk for throat cancer, especially those who also drink alcohol. So, avoiding tobacco and alcohol can help protect you from throat cancer.

Men are up to three to five times more likely than women to develop throat cancer, and white men in particular are at risk for HPV-related throat cancer.

But keep in mind that even if you don't smoke or drink alcohol, you can still develop throat cancer from HPV.

Watch Dr. Strugis discuss HPV symptoms and throat cancer symptoms:

2 Comments

interesting discussion, regarding symptoms of HPV throat cancer, I had HPV throat cancer and prior to treatment I noticed a change in taste and food smell, but did not relate the change to my soon to be discovered throat cancer. Is this change in food taste and smell coincidental or a symptom of throat cancer? thanks in advance for your time

Hi Keith, we're so sorry to hear that. You're in our thoughts and prayers here at MD Anderson. Symptoms can be different for everyone, but the most common symptoms for throat cancer include:
Hoarseness or other change in the voice
Difficulty swallowing or the feeling that something is caught in the throat
Persistent sore throat
Ear pain
Lump in the neck
Cough
Breathing problems
Unexplained weight loss

For more information visit our website: http://bit.ly/YTiD4Z

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