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HPV and Oropharyngeal Cancer

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3 min read


This article focuses on the nature of human papillomavirus (HPV) and its role in developing oropharyngeal cancer.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Sneha Kannan

Published At January 21, 2021
Reviewed AtAugust 10, 2023


Papillomaviruses is a group of more than 200 viruses, some of which can be transmitted by sexual contact. HPV was proved to be involved in the pathogenesis of throat cancer in men and women; also, they are responsible for cervical cancer in women. Some members of the HPV family can cause respiratory tract diseases (HPV 6 and HPV 11).


When HPV gets into the infected human cell, it combines with its nuclear DNA. After a series of biochemical interactions inside the cell nucleus, two types of proteins are formed, which are called E6 and E7. These two proteins block the cell death process, leading to unrestricted cell growth known as cancer.


The most specific and the most sensitive test to diagnose HPV infection is PCR (polymerase chain reaction). This test depends on the messenger RNA (mRNA) inside the nucleus of the infected cell. The messenger RNA is produced by the combination of HPV and the nuclear HPV.

The second method to diagnose HPV infection is immunohistochemistry, which depends on the proteins E6 and E7 that are produced by the messenger RNA. This method is sensitive but not specific. It means that if the test is positive, the patient has cancer, but the cause might not be HPV infection.

A tissue biopsy is an effective way to detect the presence of HPV in the throat tissue. In case of the appearance of an oral wart or any oral polyp in a patient with a history of multiple sexual relations, especially oral sex activity, a biopsy must be taken for histological examination. It was found that in the case of HPV-positive tonsil cancer, the virus is present deep in the tonsil tissue. In contrast, the superficial layers of the tonsil are completely free from the virus. So, it is better to surgically remove the whole tonsil to be examined, not only a superficial biopsy.


As we have read before, human papillomavirus has many types. About 60 % of these are cutaneous, which do not produce cancer. At the same time, 40 % of these are mucosal, which are divided into low-risk groups and high-risk groups. The low-risk group, HPV 6 and 11, produce pulmonary papillomatosis and genital warts. The high-risk group, types 16 and 18, produce cervical, anogenital, and oropharyngeal cancers.

Risk Factors

Human papillomavirus are transmitted in several ways, like multiple sexual partners and open mouth deep kissing, but the most effective way is oral sex. Oropharyngeal cancer related to HPV occurs with chronic HPV infection.

Oropharyngeal Cancer:

Oropharyngeal cancers are divided into:

1) HPV-Negative Oropharyngeal Cancer:

An example of the HPV-negative type is cancer caused by excessive consumption of cigarettes and alcohol. The lesion of HPV-negative type commonly presents as a pharyngeal firm ulcer surrounded by an area of mucosal changes, as cigarette smoke and alcohol affect not only the area of the ulcer but the entire mouth mucosa and the tongue. This type is most commonly seen in the age above 60 years with a long history of cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption.

2) HPV-Positive Oropharyngeal Cancer:

In the HPV-positive type, the lesion looks more focal, well-defined, and with normal tissue around it. This type is most commonly seen in adults below 60 years with a history of repeated HPV infection and bad sexual habits. Other symptoms can be found as enlargement of tonsils, pain while swallowing, and neck masses. Sometimes, the only symptom can be just a foreign body sensation in the throat. HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer is more common in males than in females.

Management of HPV-Positive Oropharyngeal Cancer

It was approved that HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer treatment outcomes are much better than that of HPV-negative oropharyngeal cancer because the HPV-positive type is present in young patients who do not have a history of cigarette smoking and alcohol. Treatment modalities of HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer are classified into surgical and nonsurgical modalities.

1) Surgical Methods - The classical surgery for HPV-positive cancer is an open surgery, which takes 13 hours, followed by at least two weeks of postsurgical under observation and close follow-up of the patient at the hospital. After introducing robotic surgery, the time of the oropharyngeal cancer surgery is decreased to just 2 hours, followed by a few hours to few days of postsurgical follow-up.

2) Nonsurgical Methods - Radiotherapy and intravenous chemotherapy are done. Radiotherapy has some disadvantages, like burns that affect the whole neck tissues causing breathing and swallowing difficulties. Sometimes, the patient needs a tracheostomy to maintain his breathing or a nasogastric tube for nutrition.

The treatment modality is decided according to the severity of the disease, the patient's general health, and the patient's outcome expectations. Sometimes, both surgical and nonsurgical modalities are used for the same patient.


Almost all sexually active people have been infected by HPV even if they do not know, as HPV infection is a silent infection in 90 % of the infected people. Fortunately, HPV takes from 10 to 12 years from the start of the infection to produce oropharyngeal cancer. The immune response of the infected patient plays a great role in suppressing the activity of the virus.

As HPV is a sexually transmitted virus, the most effective way to prevent HPV infection is lifetime mutual monogamy, using condoms, and decreasing sexual partners as possible. HPV vaccination has a great role in lowering the rate of HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer. HPV vaccination gives its best protective effects when administered during the preteen years. The vaccination is introduced in the form of 3 shots. The second shot is taken from 1 to 2 months after the first one, while the third shot is taken 6 months after the first one. The whole course of the vaccination must be completed for it to be effective. Sometimes, HPV infected patients need psychological support, especially females.


Therefore, human papilloma virus can be treated with proper medication. However if patients still have persistent symptoms for over two years, there are higher chances of oropharyngeal cancer. Diagnosing the condition at the earliest possible, can prevent the spread of this disease. Also, it is crucial to go for frequent follow-ups to monitor the progress of the condition.

Frequently Asked Questions


How Long Does HPV Take to Cause Throat Cancer?

The development of throat cancer as a result of HPV is a slow process, and the time it takes for HPV to progress to cancer can vary from person to person. Some individuals may never develop cancer, even if they have been infected with HPV. Throat cancer development is influenced by multiple factors, and it is crucial to recognize that not all HPV infections result in the development of cancer.


What HPV Strains Are Responsible for Oropharyngeal Cancer?

The strains of HPV that have been identified as major causes of oropharyngeal cancer are HPV 16 and HPV 18. These high-risk strains are known to cause the majority of HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers. Other high-risk HPV strains, such as HPV 31, HPV 33, HPV 45, HPV 52, and HPV 58, have also been found to be associated with oropharyngeal cancer, but to a lesser extent.


How Prevalent Is HPV-Related Oropharyngeal Cancer?

According to recent studies, the incidence of HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer has been rising steadily over the past few decades, particularly among younger populations. It also accounts for most new cases of oropharyngeal cancer diagnosed yearly. Prevention measures include practicing good oral hygiene, limiting tobacco and alcohol consumption, getting vaccinated against HPV, and regularly visiting a dentist or doctor for check-ups.


How Can One Tell If They Have HPV-Related Throat Cancer?

The presence of certain symptoms can be indicative of throat cancer associated with human papillomavirus (HPV), although it is worth noting that these symptoms can also be attributed to other underlying conditions. Here are some common symptoms of throat cancer caused by HPV:
 - Pain or discomfort in the throat.
 - The presence of a lump or mass in the neck or throat.
 - Hoarseness or changes in voice.
 - Persistent coughing
 - Unexplained weight loss.


Can Throat Cancer Caused by HPV Be Treated?

Treatment options for HPV-related throat cancer can be tailored based on various factors, including the cancer's stage and location, the patient's overall health, and individual preferences. Some common treatments for HPV-related throat cancer include surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. In some patients, a combination of these treatments may be recommended.


Is the Growth of HPV Throat Cancer Slow?

The rate of growth of throat cancer related to HPV can differ based on factors like the specific type of HPV, the individual's overall health, and the presence of other medical conditions. Some HPV-related throat cancers can grow quickly, while others can grow more slowly. Regular check-ups are crucial for individuals with risk factors such as smoking, weakened immune system, or a history of HPV exposure.


How Does One Develop Throat Cancer if They Have HPV?

HPV is a virus transmitted through sexual contact that can potentially infect the mouth and throat. Oropharyngeal cancer risk is elevated by specific high-risk strains of HPV, notably HPV16. Additional risk factors encompass tobacco and alcohol use, as well as a compromised immune system.


Should I Be Concerned if I Have Throat HPV?

In the case of HPV infection in the throat, it is crucial to adopt a proactive stance and engage in a conversation with your doctor regarding the risks involved as well as the available preventive and treatment options. HPV vaccines can help prevent HPV infections, including those that can lead to cancer. If HPV-related cancer is diagnosed, prompt treatment is crucial to improve the chances of a successful outcome.


How Long Does HPV in the Throat Last?

The duration of human papillomavirus (HPV) in the throat can vary. In many cases, the body's immune system can clear the infection on its own within several months to two years. However, in some cases, the virus can persist and cause persistent infections, which can lead to the development of oropharyngeal cancer.


Does HPV-Related Throat Cancer Recur?

Yes, human papillomavirus (HPV) related throat cancer can come back (recur) after treatment. The probability of cancer recurrence is influenced by various factors, including the cancer stage, treatment type, and the patient's overall health. Patients who have had HPV-related throat cancer are usually monitored closely after treatment to detect any signs of recurrence. If a recurrence is detected, further treatment may be necessary.


How Quickly May HPV Lead to Cancer?

Infections with HPV have the potential to induce precancerous alterations in cells, gradually progressing to cancerous conditions over the course of several years. In other cases, HPV-related cancers may develop much more quickly, within just a few months to a couple of years. Regular check-ups are crucial, particularly for individuals with HPV exposure, as timely identification and management of precancerous alterations or cancer can significantly enhance the likelihood of favorable outcomes.


Is HPV in the Throat Spreadable?

Yes, human papillomavirus (HPV) in the throat can be contagious. A sexually transmitted infection, HPV can be passed on through different types of sexual activities, including oral, genital, or anal sex, as well as through direct skin-to-skin contact in the genital region.To reduce the risk of spreading HPV, it's recommended to practice safe sex and get vaccinated against HPV.
Source Article IclonSourcesSource Article Arrow
Dr. Mohammed Osama Aboborda
Dr. Mohammed Osama Aboborda

Otolaryngology (E.N.T)


hpv vaccineoropharyngeal cancerhpvpolymerase chain reactioncervical cancer
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