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The Connection between HPV Infection and Head and Neck Cancer

diagram of oropharynx
Oropharyngeal cancer is a disease in which cancer cells form in the soft palate, side and back walls of the throat, tonsils, and the back one-third of the tongue.

For years, the typical patient with cancer of the mouth and throat (oropharyngeal cancer) fit a "Marlboro Man" stereotype—a rugged, outdoorsy man who was a lifelong smoker with a history of alcohol use. But that is no longer true. Today, patients are younger. They often don’t use tobacco or alcohol—common risk factors for oropharyngeal cancer. Instead, human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is now responsible for more than 70% of cases.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. The virus is usually harmless and goes away by itself, but some types can lead to cancer. Those cancers are an "evolving epidemic," according to experts at a recent meeting on head and neck cancers at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI). Health care providers have seen a large increase in HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers.

About 19,000 new cases of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer will be diagnosed this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Men are four times more likely than women to develop this cancer. Survival rates are high if the cancer is found early.

Two challenges complicate reducing HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers: screening and awareness about the HPV vaccine.

Screening. First, it is difficult to know who is at risk of developing HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer. Often, a significant time passes between when a person is infected with HPV and when they develop cancer. That makes it hard to know who to screen for the disease.

Additionally, there isn’t a good screening tool for these cancers. Scientists are searching for better ways to screen patients and identify who is at risk. If we can find the disease earlier, treatment will be less aggressive, and patients will have fewer lifelong side effects.

Awareness. The HPV vaccine makes it possible to prevent HPV-related cancers. The vaccine is available for adolescents and young adults. However, HPV vaccination rates lag behind other adolescent vaccines. Raising awareness about the HPV vaccine is crucial. Primary care physicians and pediatricians are vital partners in efforts to increase the number of young people who get the vaccine.

HCI is on the front lines of preventing and treating HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer. Over the past decade, HCI has provided free head and neck cancer screenings for thousands of people. To improve HPV vaccination rates in the Mountain West, our community outreach staff and researchers partner with state immunization programs and primary care providers. And when HPV-related cancer can’t be prevented, physicians at HCI work to provide the best treatment and improve quality of life for each patient.