What is HPV-positive throat cancer?

Human papilloma virus (HPV) is a type of sexually transmitted disease (STD). While it usually affects the genitals, it can show up in other areas as well. According to the Cleveland Clinic, there are over 40 subtypes of sexually transmitted HPV that affect the genitals and mouth/throat.

One subtype of oral HPV, called HPV-16, can cause throat cancer. The resulting cancer is sometimes called HPV-positive throat cancer. Keep reading to learn more about the symptoms of HPV-positive throat cancer and how to protect yourself.

The symptoms of HPV-positive throat cancer are similar to those of HPV-negative throat cancer. However, a 2014 study found that HPV-positive throat cancer causes more cases of neck swelling. The same study concluded that a sore throat was more common in HPV-negative throat cancer, though it can also be a symptom of HPV-positive throat cancer.

Other possible symptoms of HPV-positive throat cancer include:

  • swollen lymph nodes
  • earaches
  • swollen tongue
  • pain when swallowing
  • hoarseness
  • numbness inside of your mouth
  • small lumps inside your mouth and around your neck
  • coughing up blood
  • red or white patches on your tonsils
  • unexplained weight loss

Oral HPV can be difficult to detect in the early stages. This is because of the lack of noticeable symptoms. In addition, not all cases of oral HPV turn into health issues. In fact, Harvard Health estimates that many people don’t have symptoms at all, and the infection resolves itself within two years.

Oral HPV is often transmitted through oral sex, but it’s unclear what causes it to develop into throat cancer. Some research suggests that having more sexual partners is linked to HPV-positive throat cancer. However, more studies are needed to fully understand the relationship between HPV-positive throat cancer and the number of sexual partners someone’s had.

Keep in mind that many cases of oral HPV don’t cause any symptoms, making it easy for someone to unknowingly transmit it to a partner. It can also take years for throat cancer to develop from an HPV infection. Both of these factors make it hard to nail down potential causes.

The Cleveland Clinic estimates that that 1 percent of adults end up with HPV-16 infections. In addition, about two-thirds of all throat cancers contain HPV-16 strains. This is why having oral HPV is considered a strong risk factor for throat cancer. Still, most people with HPV-16 infections don’t end up getting throat cancer.

A 2017 study also found that smoking may be an important risk factor. While smoking doesn’t necessarily cause HPV-positive throat cancer, being a smoker and having an active HPV infection may increase your overall risk of cancer cells. Smoking also increases your risk of HPV-negative throat cancer.

In addition, according to a recent national study, oral HPV infection was three times more common in men than in women, high-risk oral HPV infection was five times more common in men, and oral HPV 16 was six times more common in men.

There’s no single test for detecting oral HPV or HPV-positive throat cancer early. Your doctor might notice signs of throat cancer or oral HPV during a routine exam. In some cases, signs of throat cancer are detected during a dental appointment. Usually, the cancer is diagnosed after a person has symptoms.

Even if you don’t have any symptoms, your doctor might recommend an oral cancer screening if you’re at risk of developing it. This involves a physical exam of the inside of your mouth and the use of a small camera to get a look at the back of your throat as well as your vocal cords.

Treatment for HPV-positive throat cancer is very similar to treatment for other types of throat cancer. Treatments for both HPV-positive and non-HPV throat cancers are similar. The goal in treatment is to get rid of cancer cells around the throat area so they don’t spread or cause any further complications. This may be accomplished with one or more of the following:

You can reduce your risk of developing HPV or HPV-related throat cancer by taking a few precautions. Remember, HPV often doesn’t cause any symptoms, so it’s important to protect yourself even if it seems like someone doesn’t have HPV.

Follow these tips to reduce your risk:

  • Use protection when having sex, including condoms and dental dams during oral sex.
  • Avoid smoking and high alcohol intake, which may increase your risk of HPV-positive throat cancer if you already have HPV.
  • Ask your dentist to check for anything unusual, such as patches of discoloration, in your mouth during regular teeth cleanings. Also, regularly check your mouth in a mirror for anything unusual, especially if you have oral sex often. While this can’t prevent HPV-related cancer from development, it may help identify it earlier.
  • If you’re age 45 or under, talk to your doctor about the HPV vaccine if you haven’t previously received it.

HPV-positive throat cancer usually responds well to treatment, and people diagnosed with it have a disease-free survival rate of 85 to 90 percent. This means that most of these people are alive and cancer-free five years after being diagnosed.

About 7 percent of people in the United States between the ages of 14 and 69 have an HPV-related infection in the throat, which can turn into throat cancer. Protecting yourself against HPV infections is key to preventing related health problems, including throat cancer.

If you frequently have oral sex, get into the habit of regularly examining the inside of your mouth, and make sure to tell your doctor if you find anything unusual.