HPV – What is it and why does it matter when it comes to oral health?
Have you heard talk in the media about HPV? Unsure as to what it actually is, or why it matters? Allow us to shed some light on this condition and explain why it matters when it comes to your oral health.
What is HPV?
HPV stands for human papillomavirus and is a type of virus that infects the skin and the cells lining body cavities. For most people, the infection will get better on its own and they will never know they had it. There are hundreds of different types of HPV:
- Some infect the skin, usually on the fingers and hands. These can cause minor problems, such as common skin warts and verrucas.
- Others infect the genitals, mouth and throat. These can cause genital warts, or more rarely, cancer.
HPV is a very common infection, spread through close skin-to-skin contact, usually during sexual activity including oral sex. Around 8 out of 10 people will be infected with the virus at some point in their lives. It usually doesn’t cause any symptoms and most people will never know they had it, however in some people the infection will stay around for a long time and become persistent.
Around 13 types of HPV can cause cancer. These are called ‘high-risk’ types. People with persistent infections with ‘high-risk’ HPV types are those who are most likely to go on to develop cancer.
HPV and cancer
The main type of cancer linked to HPV infection is cervical cancer, however HPV infection also increases the risk of some types of mouth and throat cancers. Rates of mouth cancer, especially tongue and tonsil cancers, are on the increase, particularly in people in their 40s, 50s and 60s and the evidence suggests that the proportion of cases linked to HPV is rising.
About mouth cancer
Mouth cancer can start anywhere in the oral cavity. This includes the:
- inside lining of the cheeks and lips (buccal mucosa)
- front 2/3 of the tongue
- gums (gingiva)
- floor of the mouth
- roof of the mouth (hard palate)
- area behind the wisdom teeth (retromolar trigone)
Mouth and oropharyngeal cancer is more common in men than women. 1 in 75 men and 1 in 150 women will be diagnosed with mouth cancer at some point in their life. Most mouth and oropharyngeal cancers are diagnosed in people over 60.
Symptoms of mouth cancer
The most common symptoms of mouth cancer are:
- sore mouth ulcers that don’t heal within several weeks
- unexplained, persistent lumps in the mouth that don’t go away
- unexplained, persistent lumps in the lymph glands in the neck that don’t go away
Other symptoms may include:
- pain or difficulty when swallowing (dysphagia)
- changes in your voice or speech problems
- unexplained weight loss
- bleeding or numbness in the mouth
- a tooth, or teeth, that becomes loose for no obvious reason, or a tooth socket that doesn’t heal
- difficulty moving your jaw
- red or white patches on the lining of your mouth – these are common and are very rarely cancerous, but they can sometimes turn into cancer, so it’s worth seeing a specialist if you have them
Many of these symptoms can be caused by less serious conditions, such as minor infections, so try not to panic if you find you have any of them. It is however important you visit your GP or dentist if any of the above symptoms have lasted longer than three weeks. It’s particularly important to seek medical advice if you drink or smoke regularly.
How we can help
Mouth cancer often doesn’t cause any noticeable symptoms during its initial stages. This is why it’s important to have regular dental check-ups, particularly if you smoke, drink heavily or chew betel, a type of nut commonly consumed in Asia. Your dentist may be able to detect mouth cancer during an examination.
If you’ve got any questions about oral cancer or HPV, please feel free to ask us at your next appointment – we’re here to help.