What is HPV?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Of the more than 100 types of HPV, about 40 types can spread through direct sexual contact to genital areas, as well as the mouth and throat. Oral HPV is transmitted to the mouth by oral sex, or possibly in other ways. Many people are exposed to oral HPV in their life. About 10% of men and 3.6% of women have oral HPV, and oral HPV infection is more common with older age. Most people clear HPV within one to two years, but HPV infection persists in some people.
HPV can infect the mouth and throat and cause cancers of the oropharynx (back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils). This is called oropharyngeal cancer. HPV is thought to cause 70% of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States.
It usually takes years after being infected with HPV for cancer to develop. It is unclear if having HPV alone is enough to cause oropharyngeal cancers, or if other factors (such as smoking or chewing tobacco) interact with HPV to cause these cancers.
Can the HPV vaccine prevent oropharyngeal cancers?
The HPV vaccine was developed to prevent cervical and other cancers of the reproductive system. The vaccine protects against the types of HPV that can cause oropharyngeal cancers, so it may also prevent oropharyngeal cancers.
CDC recommends HPV vaccination for 11- to 12-year-olds. CDC also recommends HPV vaccination for everyone through age 26 years, if not vaccinated already.
Vaccination is not recommended for everyone older than age 26 years. However, some adults age 27 through 45 years who are not already vaccinated may decide to get the HPV vaccine after speaking with their doctor about their risk for new HPV infections and the possible benefits of vaccination. HPV vaccination in this age range provides less benefit, as more people have already been exposed to HPV.
HPV vaccination prevents new HPV infections, but does not treat existing infections or diseases. This is why the HPV vaccine works best when given before any exposure to HPV.