The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted disease. An estimated three in four sexually active adults will be exposed to HPV at some point in their lives. But what exactly is HPV and how does it affect your health and oral health? Read on to learn more about HPV and related cancers.
What is HPV?
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a family of over 100 viruses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that of those over 100 types, about 40 are sexually transmitted. These types of HPV can infect the genital areas, including the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, and anus, as well as some parts of the throat and mouth. And according to the Canadian Cancer Society, about 75% of adults will get at least one HPV infection in their lives. But most of them won’t know they are infected as HPV usually doesn’t cause any symptoms.
What are the symptoms of HPV?
As mentioned above, people infected with HPV rarely have symptoms. This makes it hard to know precisely how or when the virus spread. In most cases, your immune system fights off the HPV infection and it clears on its own in one to two years. In some cases, an HPV infection can cause warts. These include genital warts, common warts, plantar warts, and flat warts. While there is no treatment for an HPV infection, there are treatments for warts caused by the infection. Talk to your doctor about treatments.
HPV and cervical cancer
Of the 40 types of HPV that infect people, only a few cause cancer. However, almost all cervical cancer is caused by an HPV infection. For example, HPV16 and HPV18 are responsible for 70% of cervical cancers. A high-risk HPV infection can cause the cells in the cervix to change. Over time, these changes can lead to cancerous tumours. But it may take 20 years or longer to develop cervical cancer after an HPV infection. As early stage cervical cancer usually doesn’t cause symptoms, it’s crucial that women are regularly screened to detect any pre-cancerous changes to the cervix. As such, women between 21 and 65 years of age should get a Pap test every three years.
The link between HPV and oral cancer
Oral HPV is typically transmitted through oral sex, but may also be transmitted in other ways. Like with cervical cancer, HPV16 and HPV18 also are the types linked to HPV-related oral cancers. As HPV can infect the mouth and throat, it can cause cancer of the oropharynx (back of the throat including the tonsils and base of the tongue). Thus, it takes years after being infected with HPV for cancer to develop. It is unclear if other factors contribute to the development of this type of cancer. For example, smoking or chewing tobacco may interact with HPV to cause oral cancer.
HPV and oral cancer incidence
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, about two thirds of HPV-related cancers occur in areas other than the cervix. In fact, HPV is related to 25% to 35% of throat and mouth cancers. And, as mentioned above, most of these cancers are linked to high-risk HPV types 16 and 18.
How to prevent HPV?
As an HPV infection usually has no symptoms, it is very hard to determine how or when it spread. And while about 75% of adults will have at least one HPV infection in their lifetime, there are still some things you can take to prevent HPV. These include:
· Practising safe sex: use a condom and other barriers such as an oral dam before skin-to-skin contact to help reduce the risk of contracting HPV. While they will help reduce the risk, they are not 100% effective.
· Getting vaccinated: there are currently three vaccines (Cervarix, Gardasil, and Gardasil 9) on the market that protect against the most common types of HPV. Talk to your doctor about getting vaccinated or vaccinating your children.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in North America. While most people don’t experience any symptoms, an HPV infection can cause warts. HPV infections usually clear on their own in one to two years, but some high-risk HPV infections can persist and eventually cause healthy cells to change. This can then lead to certain types of cancer such as cervical cancer, anal cancer, vaginal or vulvar cancer, penile cancer, and oral cancer. It is important to talk to your dentist or doctor if you notice any long-lasting changes to your throat or mouth. This would include persistent sore throat, earaches, hoarseness, swollen lymph nodes, pain when swallowing, and unexplained weight loss. For all of your oral health care needs, make an appointment at our clinic today.