Smoking and the use of tobacco products is a major contributor to developing oral cancer. But according to the National Center for Health Statistics, there is another factor that is driving up the rate of oral cancer diagnoses. This factor is the human papillomavirus.
Human papillomavirus, also known as HPV, is a group of over 150 viruses. These viruses cause papillomas, or warts to appear in infected areas. HPV is transmitted through sexual contact and is the most common sexually transmitted disease. Some of the viral strains in this group are known to cause cancer in the genitals, and six of the strains have been linked to oral and oropharyngeal cancer cases, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation.
Over 42 percent of American adults are infected with HPV. Seven percent of this group are infected with a strain that causes oral cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
HPV causes oral cancer by turning normal cells of the mouth and throat abnormal. The change in cells is not detectable by a visual inspection, and affected individuals do not feel the change taking place. Most people have a healthy immune system capable of fighting off the virus and protecting the body, but when a patient has weakened immune system or underlying health condition, the body is incapable of fighting off the virus.
In patients who are unable to fight off the virus changes in the cells of the mouth and throat become noticeable. Signs of an oral HPV infection include sores or lesions that do not heal after two to three weeks, swollen tonsils, difficulty chewing or swallowing, swelling in the mouth and ear pain.
Oral cancer caused by HPV typically takes years to develop after being infected with the virus. Currently, researchers are unclear if HPV infection is enough to cause oral and oropharyngeal cancers, or if other factors, like smoking or using tobacco products, in addition to the virus up the risk of a patient developing oral cancer.
Signs of oral and oropharyngeal cancer are similar to signs of HPV infection- sores that do not heal after a few weeks, difficulty swallowing, ear ache and sore throat. Other signs include pain in the lymph nodes and sudden weight loss. In many cases, signs of oral cancer go unnoticed because they present themselves like other health conditions. As a result, many dentists are encouraging their patients to opt for oral cancer screenings as part of regular visits to the dentists. Dr. Steven P. Rogers, D.M.D., P.C, is one of those dentists. Rogers practices in Grant’s Pass, Oregon.
"Adults should get at least one oral cancer screening per year, and more if they are in a high-risk category," Rogers said.
High-risk patients would include patients with oral HPV infections, as well as smokers and tobacco users. Increased alcohol consumption also increases the risk of developing oral cancer. Seventy percent of individuals diagnosed with oral cancer are heavy drinkers, a statistic reported by the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
Rogers performs oral cancer screenings using a special fluorescent light to look for oral cancer spots that are unseen to the naked eye. Rogers is looking for a special kind of spot, known as a squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinomas are the cause of 90 percent of oral cancers. They usually appear on the lip or under the tongue and resemble ulcers.
"Unlike ulcers, these spots do not go away," Rogers said.
Rogers also performs a physical exam of the patient’s mouth, gums and other oral tissues as part of the regular check-up procedure.
The Oral Cancer Foundation estimates that over 49,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year. Over 9,700 Americans will die of the disease this year. Oral cancer claims one life every hour of the day.
Division of STD Prevention, National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3 January 2017
Oral Cancer News. April 2017
Oral Cancer Foundation. "HPV/Oral Cancer Facts". 2017
Cancer Treatment Centers of America. "Oral Cancer Risk Factors". 2017