What You Need to Know: HPV and Cancer Risk

More and more people with HPV are getting oral cancer. Here's what you need to know to protect yourself.

from Reader's Digest | August 2008

While few people with HPV get oral cancer, the number is likely to keep rising, says Maura Gillison, MD, of Johns Hopkins, if only because HPV is so common — 20 million Americans are infected, with 6.2 million new cases each year. So far, there’s no cure and just one test — and only to detect HPV in a woman’s cervix. Only a biopsy can tell whether an oral cancer is linked to HPV, but a test to spot high-risk oral infection in men and women and a vaccine for men are both in the works. What you need to know:

• Most people with HPV infections don’t have any symptoms. At least half of sexually active men and women may become infected in their lifetime. About 23 percent of women ages 14 to 65 have high-risk HPV, including
35 percent of 14-to 19-year-old girls.

• Gardasil protects against up to 70 percent of the HPV types that cause cervical cancer, but it’s unknown if the vaccine protects against oral infection in men or women.

• While most infections clear up on their own without patients ever knowing they were exposed, the consequences can still be severe. For instance, one type of HPV raises the risk of oral cancer by 3,200 percent.

• The virus spreads through any form of sexual activity, and condoms can’t fully protect against it. Having more than five oral sex partners boosts the risk of HPV-linked oral cancer by 340 percent.