HPV of The Mouth: What it Means and How to Treat It

The Human Papilloma Virus, or HPV, is a virus that can infect cells lining the back of your mouth. In some cases, the virus can cause some cells to turn cancerous, which means they continue to grow unchecked. This can create significant problems by invading and eroding adjacent normal tissue, and in more advanced stages it can spread to the lymph nodes in the neck and even to the rest of the body.

The most common areas in the head and neck that develop HPV cancers are the tonsil and the base of tongue. In fact, HPV is estimated to cause 70 percent of the cancers that arise in these areas. Symptoms of cancers in this region include pain, intermittent bleeding out of the mouth, ear pain, a foreign body sensation in the throat, and if the cancer spreads to the neck lymph nodes, a new lump that persists in the neck.

Unfortunately, there is no commercial “test” that can tell you if you have HPV in the mouth and throat. If you suspect there is something wrong, make an appointment with an ear, nose, and throat doctor, otherwise known as a otolaryngologist. The otolaryngologist will perform a physical examination to search for suspicious lesions.

The good news is that vaccines for HPV exist, and have been shown to decrease other diseases  such as genital warts, cervical cancer and respiratory papillomatosis. The Food and Drug Administration recently expanded the age range for those eligible for vaccination to people between the ages of nine to 45.  It is expected that since the vaccine most commonly given in the United States covers the strains of virus mostly strongly associated with oropharyngeal cancer, it will offer protection to the people who receive it. In general, the younger the age at which one receives the vaccine, the more protection it will provide.

If you are diagnosed with an HPV cancer, the physician must “stage” your cancer by determining if it has spread, and how large and extensive it is. We are blessed at Mission Hospital to have a multidisciplinary team of pathologists, radiologists, surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, nutritionists, speech and swallowing specialists, and nurse navigators to help coordinate your care. Many times, specific cases are presented at our world-class Multidisciplinary Cancer Conference for our experts to give recommendations for treatment at the Leonard Cancer Institute. Treatment may include diagnostic biopsies, surgical removal, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and of course, swallow preservation therapy, with support services unique to the Leonard Cancer Institute.


Quang Luu, M.D. is a head and neck surgical oncologist at the Leonard Cancer Institute at Mission Hospital, part of Providence St. Joseph Health, a not-for-profit provider of integrated health care. 


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