By Tanya Fancy, MD and Rusha Patel, MD
A diagnosis of head and neck cancer can have a significant impact on a patient’s speech, physical appearance, and ability to swallow. Over the last decade, there has been increasing evidence that a sexually transmitted infection, HPV or human papillomavirus, plays a large role in the development of cancer of the tonsils and tongue. April 10-15 is Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week.
What is head and neck cancer?
Head and neck cancer affects any area in the throat and swallowing areas, including the tongue, tonsils, and voice box. It can also occur in the saliva glands and in the skin of the face and scalp.
What are the symptoms of head and neck cancer?
Symptoms may include any of the following:
- Persistent sore throat
- Ear/jaw pain
- Pain while swallowing
- A mass in the neck
- Sores on the tongue or in the mouth that do not heal
- Hoarseness or change in voice
- Frequent bloody noses, or same-sided nasal congestion
What causes head and neck cancer?
Tobacco use, in the form of cigarettes and chew, are known risk factors, and e-cigarettes can also contribute though the effect is unknown. Heavy alcohol use can be another cause, and people who use both alcohol and tobacco are at a higher risk for head and neck cancer. HPV has been identified as a cause as well.
What is HPV?
HPV is a virus that can be spread by vaginal, anal, and oral sex. There are low-risk and high-risk strains. Low-risk HPV can cause skin warts on or around the genitals, anus, mouth, or throat. Most high-risk HPV infections occur without any symptoms, go away within one to two years, and do not usually cause cancer. Wearing a condom does not always protect against the spread of HPV, and transmission can occur between people who otherwise have no symptoms.
How is HPV treated?
There is no treatment for HPV. The HPV vaccine has been shown to prevent the development of cervical cancer in women, but the role of the vaccine for head and neck cancer has not been thoroughly studied. It is the official stance of the American Head and Neck Cancer Society to have both men and women vaccinated against HPV.
What can I do to decrease my risk of head and neck cancer?
Decrease your tobacco use and avoid drinking alcohol excessively. By adulthood, most people have been exposed to HPV. There is no proven way to decrease the risk of head and neck cancer due to HPV, but barrier methods such as consistent condom use may help.
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