Link Between Oral Cancer and HPV


Surprising data reveals our youngsters are at greater risk than ever for developing oral cancer caused by exposure to HPV

Last weekend, I took some time to catch up on a few of my favorite TV programs: Downton Abbey (season 6 ends the series!) and Jimmy Kimmel. While Jimmy is generally comic relief from my busy week, the episode I watched from a few weeks ago inspired this blog post today. He and several of his physician friends got together to create a tongue-n-cheek (pun intended!) PSA urging parents to get their children vaccinated. While funny, the message was still loud and clear: vaccinations save lives.

As a community healthcare provider myself, I see firsthand how important vaccinations are for our children individually, but also the impact they have on our community collectively. So, in honor of Oral Cancer Awareness Month, I want to bring your attention to the importance of HPV vaccinations.

While you might be asking yourself why a dentist would be talking about an STD vaccination, the surprising answer is that HPV is a leading cause of oral cancer. And it kills.

What is HPV?

Human Papillomavirus (or HPV) is the fastest growing sexually transmitted disease in the world with roughly 200 different types. Most are beaten by the immune system over time and not a cause for concern. But two types in particular can be life threatening, increasing the risk for oral cancer substantially.

Undetected, long-term exposure to HPV-16 or HPV-18 infections are serious and linked not only to cervical cancer, but recently to oral cancer. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, approximately 45,750 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer in 2015. More than 115 new diagnoses are made each day, and it kills one person every hour of every day. About half of those diagnosed will not survive more than five years.

While HPV infections rarely have visible symptoms, oral cancer symptoms include:

  • recurring mouth sores or lesions with trouble healing;
  • white or red patches on the gums, tongue, tonsil or lining of the mouth;
  • lumps or thickening of the cheek;
  • numbness of the tongue or face;
  • a persistent sore throat and hoarseness; and
  • unexplained loose teeth.

Alarming rise in HPV among young people

Until recently, oral cancer was predominantly seen among male smokers and tobacco users in their mid-40s and older. Since tobacco use has declined over the past decade in the U.S., the American Cancer Society sees HPV as a leading cause for oral cancer among a variety of groups.

The CDC saysHPV is so common that most sexually-active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives. They believe about 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV and 14 million more people become newly infected each year.

This rise in HPV occurrences translates to an increase in cervical and oral cancers. In fact, greater than 60 percent of new oral cancer cases in 2014 were caused by HPV, according to Dr. Dolphine Oda, Professor of Oral Pathology at the University of Washington’s Department of Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery and the director of the UW’s Oral Pathology Biopsy Service. That’s an alarming statistic. But more alarming is the highest incidence of HPV oral cancer occurs in young people ages 20 to 24 years old.

Get Vaccinated. Period.

By abstaining from tobacco, marijuana, heavy drinking and avoiding HPV infection, the risk for oral cancer is reduced significantly. Prevention is the best guard against HPV-causing cancers, which is why vaccinations are so important for our youngsters. Two available HPV vaccines, Cervarix and Gardasil, are both proven to prevent HPV-16 and HPV-18 infection, reducing the risk of cancer.

The American Dental Association is following the CDC recommendation to vaccinate women aged 9-26 and for males 11-21 years old for HPV. Personally, I’m an advocate for vaccines and recommend families in my practice get the vaccinations they need to stay healthy and strong—this includes the HPV vaccine.

A quick, pain-free exam could save your life

April is Oral Cancer Awareness month. So there’s no better time to speak to our current patients (and our “not yet” patients) about the risks of oral cancer, who can get it and how to avoid it. Not surprisingly, the dental community is the first line of defense in early detection of this disease. Regular dental checkups incorporating an examination of the entire head and neck can help reduce its death rate, which is currently 43 percent within five years of diagnosis, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation.

Early detection saves lives. And your dentist is in a unique position to help identify oral cancer early, when treatments can be most successful, helping patients to get the life-saving support they need. Even people who wear dentures are advised to visit a dentist regularly to undergo a full mouth examination.

At Pine Lake Family Dentistry, we encourage all adults in our community to get an oral cancer screening at least once per year. Whether a current patient or a “not yet” patient, we’d like to invite you to our office to learn more about this devastating disease and allow us to conduct a thorough, yet quick and painless, oral cancer screening. Just five minutes can save your life!

Call us today to schedule an appointment. All of us at Pine Lake Family Dentistry look forward to seeing you!

–Dr. Susan Chen

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