HPV & Throat Cancer

What causes throat cancer?

Studies in New Zealand and in the US show that HPV causes most throat cancers. It is recommended that throat tumours be tested for HPV.

Smoking and alcohol can also cause throat cancer.

How did I get an oral HPV infection?

HPV is transmitted to your mouth by oral sex. It may also be possible to get oral HPV in other ways. An increased number of oral sex partners increases your chances of catching an oral HPV infection. If you find out that you have an oral HPV infection, it does not necessarily mean that your partner was/is unfaithful or has had a large number of sexual partners. Many people with throat HPV cancer have only had a few oral sex partners.

Who has oral HPV infection?

Genital HPV is so common that anyone who gives oral sex may be exposed to oral HPV during their life. HPV statistics in the United States show that around 10% of men and 3.6% of women have HPV in their mouths at any given time. Most people will clear the HPV infection on their own within a year, but in some people the HPV infection persists.

Can I transmit oral HPV to others?

Family and friends

Oral HPV is not casually transmitted by sharing drinks with people or kissing on cheeks. It isn’t known yet if open-mouth kissing can transmit HPV.

Partners of people with throat cancer

If one partner has an HPV infection then the other partner is likely to have been exposed to the infection. You do not need to change your intimate sexual contact if you discover that one or both of you has HPV.

Partners with a cervix, inclusive of those who identify as men (transmen), should continue to have regular cervical (PAP) screening as usual.

New sexual partners in the future

Many people with HPV throat cancer have no HPV detectable in their mouth after treatment, while others do. With new partners, discuss protection methods (eg. vaccination, condoms, dental dams or barrier protection).

When did I get this infection?

It is impossible to know the time from first oral HPV infection to cancer, but it takes many years. Therefore, it is not possible to know when and from whom the infection was acquired.

HPV is common and the great majority of people who acquire it will clear the infection and never have any evidence of having had an infection.

What does having HPV in a tumour mean?

People with throat cancer, with HPV in their tumour, live longer on average than people without HPV (i.e. HPV-positive tumours usually respond well to therapy). However, people who smoke tobacco or have smoked for a long time in the past do not live as long, on average, as people who have never smoked. Current smokers are strongly encouraged to stop. Help is available.

Will the HPV vaccine help me?

The HPV vaccine offers best protection from HPV if given before becoming sexually active. For people who are already sexually active, the vaccine may still be of benefit as it will prevent you from getting new HPV infections from the HPV strains the vaccine covers. The vaccine will not help clear an infection that you already have.

Will my partner also get throat cancer?

The risk of HPV throat cancer may be slightly higher among partners of people with HPV throat cancer, but this cancer remains extremely rare among partners.

Unlike for cervical cancer, there is no current effective screening test for HPV-related throat cancer.

HPV and throat cancer pamphlet

HPV and Throat Cancer: Common Questions and Answers. A brochure for people with HPV-positive throat cancer and their families

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Support

Head and Neck Cancer Support Network

People affected by head and neck cancer can find advocacy, connection and support in the Head and Neck Cancer Support Network where they offer a range of supportive services including online groups, support groups and resources. (http://headandneck.org.nz/)

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