Human papillomavirus (HPV)

Human papillomavirus (HPV), is a very common virus that will infect the majority of people at some point in their life. It is passed through skin-to-skin contact, and although it does not cause problems in most people, it can cause genital warts or cancer.

The HPV virus is a sexually transmitted infection and the number of lifetime sexual partners is an important risk factor for the development of HPV-associated head and neck squamous cell carcinoma.

Research has shown that:

  • The odds of HPV-positive head and neck cancer doubled in individuals who reported between one and five lifetime oral sexual partners.
  • The risk increased five-fold in those patients with six or more oral sexual partners compared with those who have not had oral sex.

There are more than 100 different types of HPV, many of which affect the mouth, throat or genital area. They are very easy to catch and since HPV has no symptoms, you may not know if you have it.

It is important to be aware that you do not need to have penetrative sex to catch HPV. It can be passed from any skin-to-skin contact of the genital area, by vaginal, anal, or oral sex, or sharing sex toys.

Patients with HPV-related head and neck cancer are generally younger, in good health, and may not have a typical history of tobacco and/or alcohol abuse.  It is also more prevalent in men.

Although it is not possible to fully protect yourself against HPV, there are things that you can do to reduce your risk of infection. Condoms do help protect against HPV, but since they do not cover all skin around the genitals, wearing one does not mean that you are fully protected. The HPV vaccine does protect against the strains of HPV that cause the most genital warts and cancer, as well as some other cancers, however it does not protect against all types of HPV.

It is important to get checked for HPV. HPV testing is part of cervical screening, which is offered to all women aged 25 to 64, and strongly advised since it helps protect against cervical cancer. There is no blood test for HPV, instead a small sample of cells is taken from the cervix and tested for HPV. Men at a higher risk of developing anal cancer may be offered anal screening by some sexual health clinics.

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