HPV, Oral Cancer & Gum Disease

According to the CDC, more than 36,500 new cases of mouth and throat cancer are diagnosed every year. The 5 year survival rate is only about 50%.

But that rate is a whole lot better in cases where the cancer is detected early. That’s why, in my office, oral cancer screening – using VelScope – is included in every adult patient’s exam at least once a year.

A recent paper underscores why this matters.

Published last month in Head & Neck Oncology, the study confirms that

oral sex with multiple partners is one of the significant risk factors for oral cancer and oropharyngeal cancer. Young people, who increasingly practice oral sex especially with many partners, may be driving the increase in these cancers.

The culprit, as we’ve discussed before, is HPV (human papillomavirus). More known for causing cervical cancer, HPV is also a major cause of oral cancer. In fact, it’s surpassed tobacco as the leading risk factor: While smoking rates have plummetted, oral cancer rates have soared. And that risk increases along with sexual activity. According to the current research,

HPV infection is likely to be sexually acquired with increased risk of oropharyngeal cancer with either many (more than 26) lifetime vaginal-sex partners or six or more lifetime oral-sex partners.

Why is the mouth so vulnerable to HPV transmission?

It must be remembered that the oral cavity is a battlefield of healing mucosal micro abrasions which could in the right circumstances of altered local host defenses allow viral inculcation, infection and entrenchment leading to somatic genetic change. Changes in immuno-tolerance at these “special” immuno-modulating sites…combined with further environmental triggers then lead to cancerous changes. Basically, viral “genes load the gun and environment pulls the trigger.”

So maybe it’s no surprise that earlier research has suggested a connection between gum disease and oral cancer. The initial study found that precancerous lesions were twice as prevalent – and tumors, four times as prevalent – in those with periodontal disease than those with healthy gums. Inflammation appears to be the key factor, as lead author Dr. Mine Tezal recently discussed in an interview with Dr. Bicuspid about her ongoing research:

The results of our recent study suggested an association between chronic local inflammation and tumor HPV status of head and neck cancers. HPV infects only basal cells of the epithelium and gains access through breaks in the mucosa….

In this inflammatory environment, HPV is also shed in greater amounts leading to increased risk of viral transmission. If prospective studies in cancer-free populations confirm that chronic inflammation is a significant factor in the natural history of oral HPV infection, the public health implications would be important.

Thus, another cancer-preventive measure, she suggests, is to control inflammation in the mouth. And she likewise confirms what the Head & Neck Oconology paper showed: frequency of exposure to the virus matters. A lot.

HPV is a commonly transmitted virus and the majority of the infections are cleared rapidly by the immune system without causing disease. Rather than the mere presence of the virus at one time point, its persistence is critical for the development of HPV-related diseases. [emphasis added]

Learn more steps you can take to lower your risk of oral cancer from my earlier post “The Oral Cancer Pandemic & How You Can Keep Yourself Safe.”

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