Cedars-Sinai Blog

Oral Cancer and HPV: What You Should Know

HPV Vaccine vial to prevent oral cancer

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 80 million Americans have the virus.

Most of these infections subside on their own, often without causing any noticeable symptoms. But others can develop into cancers of the throat, cervix, vagina, vulva, penis and anus.

"If we can achieve a 100% HPV vaccination rate for both girls and boys, we can essentially eradicate HPV as a cancer-causing virus."

Historically, cervical cancer was the most common HPV-related cancer, but those statistics are beginning to shift toward cancers of the mouth and throat. Turns out, there's a relatively simple solution: vaccination

"If we can achieve a 100% HPV vaccination rate for both girls and boys, we can essentially eradicate HPV as a cancer-causing virus," says Dr. Bobbie J. Rimel, assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology

HPV and oral cancer facts

In past decades, oral cancer was most commonly linked to smoking and alcohol use or a combination of the two. Today's oral cancers are largely linked to oral sex.

The end result is a public health crisis researchers are only beginning to recognize. A few important facts:

  • Throat cancer has surpassed cervical cancer as the most common HPV-related cancer in the U.S. 
  • Screening through Pap smears has significantly reduced the death toll of cervical cancer; however, there is no reliable screening test for the head and neck region.
  • The incidence of throat cancer is highest among white men who are over 65. Unlike women who develop lifelong protective antibodies to clear HPV after vaginal exposure, men require more exposures to develop a protective antibody.
  • Researchers project that the incidence of HPV-related throat cancer among white men ages 65-74 will skyrocket over the next several years, jumping from 40.7 per 100,000 in 2016 to an estimated 71.2 per 100,000 by 2029.

In Discoveries: An Epidemic Ignites

What you can do to prevent HPV-related oral cancers?

The single best way to protect against any HPV-related cancer, oral or not, is to vaccinate boys and girls before they become sexually active.

While the CDC recommends all children get two doses of the vaccine—the first at age 11 and the second at age 12—less than half of kids in this age bracket have ever been vaccinated. 

According to a consensus statement issued by all 69 National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers, the HPV vaccine is tragically underused.

"Parents may be afraid to vaccinate for a variety of reasons, including the notion that HPV vaccination encourages sexual activity," Dr. Rimel says. "But the data doesn't support that theory." 

The CDC recommends the vaccine for all females up to age 31 and for males up to age 21. However, the Food and Drug Administration has also approved the vaccine for everyone up to age 45.

If you have a tween-age child, have a conversation with their pediatrician. With just two doses of the HPV vaccine, your child could be protected from developing HPV-related cancers for life.