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Oral Cancers on the Rise in Young People

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Doctor examines young mans mouth

Oral cancer is on the rise, with more than 50,000 cases diagnosed in the United States each year. These cancers are most common in men over age 55, with a history of smoking or excessive alcohol consumption. However, diagnoses are increasing in younger people as a result of HPV infection.

“The most common HPV-related cancers are those of the genitals and reproductive tract. However, since the early 1970s, there has been a steady increase in cancers of the throat, tongue and tonsils that are linked to HPV,” says Nicole Fowler, MD, otolaryngologist and head & neck surgeon at University Hospitals. “Although the percentage of people who will develop HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer is very small, the upward trend is concerning.”

What Is HPV?

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a naturally occurring virus. There are almost 200 different strains of HPV, most of which are harmless. However, a small number have been shown to increase the risk of developing cancers of the tongue, tonsils and throat, as well as certain reproductive cancers.

Nearly all Americans will have an HPV infection at some point in their lifetime, the vast majority of which are cleared by the immune system without causing any symptoms or awareness. In a small percentage of people the virus survives and, often decades later, may cause cells to develop into cancer. Researchers aren’t sure why the immune system doesn’t always recognize the virus as a threat.

The virus spreads through skin-to-skin contact including kissing and sexual contact. HPV infection rarely causes symptoms, so it’s easy to pass from one person to another.

HPV Vaccination

There is no cure for HPV and there are no anti-viral drugs available to treat it. The HPV vaccine blocks the virus and protects against developing an infection that could later lead to cancer. In fact, HPV vaccination can prevent more than 90 percent of cancers caused by HPV from ever developing.

“The vaccine is safe and effective. Because it is made using only a single protein from each variant of the virus, it can’t cause HPV infection,” says Dr. Fowler. “Side effects are usually mild and may include fever and redness or swelling at the injection site.”

Who Should Be Vaccinated? And When?

The CDC recommends HPV vaccination at ages 11 and 12, given as two doses 6 to 12 months apart. The vaccine is most effective before any exposure to the virus. Teens and adults who didn’t start or finish the vaccine series should also be vaccinated.

Certain adults, up to 45 years old may also benefit from vaccination and should discuss it with their doctor.

Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Symptoms of oral cancer may include a lump or non-healing sore in the mouth or neck; white red or black patches on the tongue or gums; difficult or painful swallowing or chewing; or a persistent cough or hoarseness.

These symptoms can be signs of many conditions and don’t necessarily indicate cancer. Check with your doctor or dentist for further evaluation. As with all cancers, early detection of oral cancer offers the best chance for successful treatment and a positive outcome.

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The oncologists and otolaryngologists at University Hospitals offer the most advanced diagnostics and treatment options for cancers of the mouth and throat. Parents are strongly urged to talk to their child’s pediatrician about the benefits of HPV vaccination as one way to lower their risk of HPV-related cancers in adulthood.

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