Learn how you can protect yourself from head and neck cancer by preventing HPV.
HPV and head and neck cancers
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). While it can be harmless to most people and may go away on its own, it can sometimes lead to more serious diseases.
“The HPV vaccine was developed to protect against cancers of the reproductive system, but we’ve found that it may also protect against the type of HPV that can cause head and neck cancers,” says Dr. Nicholas Purdy, head and neck surgeon at Geisinger Medical Center.
Head and neck cancers that may be connected to HPV affect the oropharynx (back of the throat, tongue and tonsils).
HPV is known to cause oropharyngeal head and neck cancer as well as cervical pre-cancer and cancers. It’s still unclear whether the connection between oropharyngeal cancer and HPV is combined with other head and neck cancer risk factors, including smoking and alcohol abuse. HPV vaccines play an important role in prevention as they provide protection against several high-risk types of the virus.
It usually takes years of having HPV before any cancer develops. When it comes to protecting yourself against this STI, and the cancers that are and may be connected to it, getting vaccinated is important.
“Talking with your doctor about any family history of cancers is another important step in prevention,” says Dr. Purdy. “Your doctor will work with you to review all your options for lowering your risk of cancer.”
Symptoms of head and neck cancer
Head and neck cancers refer to a group of cancers that originate in the larynx, mouth, nose, pharynx, salivary glands, sinuses, throat and thyroid.
“Because symptoms of head and neck cancer are often similar to other issues, such as sinus problems or allergies, they’re sometimes more difficult cancers to diagnose,” says Dr. Thorsen Haugen, head and neck surgeon at Geisinger Medical Center.
With that in mind, having these head and neck cancer symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer, but you should always take note of your symptoms and discuss any health concerns with your doctor.
Head and neck cancer symptoms can include:
- Painless neck lump for longer than 2 weeks
- Change in voice, including hoarseness
- Ear pain or frequent ear infections
- Frequent nosebleeds
- Hearing loss
- Jaw pain
- Loosening of teeth
- Pain or difficulty swallowing or moving the tongue or jaw
- Persistent nasal congestion
- Red or white patches in the mouth
- Sore throat lasting longer than 6 weeks
- Swelling or a sore that won’t heal
- Unusual nasal discharge
How to prevent HPV
It’s very common for people who are sexually active to contract HPV at some point in their lives if they don’t receive the vaccine. With over 100 strains of HPV — all that can affect different parts of your body — prevention can help you avoid more complex health concerns.
Ways you can prevent HPV include:
- Getting tested for STDs and STIs
- Getting the HPV vaccine
- Using condoms or other contraceptives
Other ways to reduce your risk of head and neck cancers
Head and neck cancers make up about 3% of cancers in the United States. But there are ways you can protect yourself or your children against developing head and neck cancers.
Here are some other ways to reduce your risk:
- Quit smoking
- Avoid secondhand smoke
- Eat a proper diet
- Exercise regularly
- Keep on top of your oral hygiene, including regular dental visits and brushing/flossing your teeth
- Use sunscreen when you’re outside
Teaching these healthy habits to your children will help them have a healthier lifestyle and lower their chances of developing numerous health issues or complications down the line.
“We can’t stress enough the importance of prevention,” says Dr. Haugen. “By taking these steps and communicating any symptoms and family history with your doctor, you can work together to take steps that protect your health.”