LifestyleYour Health Matters


Increasing number of head & neck cancer cases linked to HPV

head neck cancer.png
Posted at 10:47 AM, Apr 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-20 12:47:03-04

Cancer of the head and neck is a relatively rare form of cancer that develops from the lining (mucosa) of the mouth, sinuses, nose, and throat. Most commonly, people affected by head and neck cancer have a significant history of alcohol and tobacco use (smoking and/or chewing tobacco) and are older— aged 60-90 years.

But during the last several decades, there has been a well-documented increase in cases among patients who do not have a history of tobacco and alcohol use, and who are much younger— some as young as in their 30s. While alcohol and tobacco are major risk factors for cancers of the head and neck, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention say about 70% of cancers in the oropharynx are linked to human papillomavirus (HPV).

What is HPV?

HPV is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection (STI).  Of those infected, most are asymptomatic but still may be able to transmit the virus. After infection, some people will clear the virus from their bodies. In other people, the virus remains latent within the tissues. Those patients with latent virus can develop oropharyngeal cancer, usually 15 to 30 years following initial infection.

What are the symptoms of head and neck cancer?

An unusual lump in the neck or sore in the mouth that doesn’t heal as expected. Other symptoms of head and neck cancer include changes to the voice (hoarseness); swallowing problems and/or pain with swallowing; persistent earache; bleeding in the nose, mouth, or throat; or continuous congestion. 

How can I reduce my risk for head and neck cancer?

The two greatest risk factors for most types of head and neck cancer are tobacco and alcohol use. Limiting those factors can greatly reduce your risk, but there are other things you can do as well, like getting vaccinated for HPV and limiting your sun exposure.