1 in 3 Throat Cancer Cases May be Caused by HPV

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throat cancer

33% of all throat cancer cases may be caused by HPV infection, according to the Journal of Clinical Oncology. (1)

HPV is a much more common cause of throat cancer than originally thought, and it is spreading. For example, actor Michael Douglas made headlines when he “told a British newspaper that his throat cancer had come from performing oral sex.” (The New York Times, July 18, 2013) (2) Recent research reports many cases like that of Mr. Douglas.


Human papillomavirus type 16 (HPV16) infection is causing an increasing number of oropharyngeal (and not just cervical) cancers.

A study from the Journal of Clinical Oncology, which lasted for ten years, looked at the most common types of cancer-causing HPV strains and their link to throat cancer. Researchers assembled a group of about 1600 healthy individuals and then tested for the presence of HPV twice, at the beginning and the end of the ten year period.

The test at the beginning of the ten year period showed no HPV in any of the patients. The second test, at the end of the ten years, found that 35% of the 135 participants who developed throat cancer had HPV markers. In contrast, in those who didn’t develop cancer, less than one percent showed the HPV markers.

“These striking results provide some evidence that HPV-16 infection may be a significant cause of oropharyngeal cancer.” (Dr. Ruth Travis, MedicalDaily.com, July 21, 2013) (3)

HPV is passed on through genital contact, most often during vaginal and anal sex, but can also be transmitted through oral sex as well. While many HPV infections resolve without treatment within two years, a small percentage of infections can cause more severe health problems, including recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP), a condition in which warts grow in the throat, and a head and neck cancer called oropharyngeal cancer, which develops in the back of the throat, at the base of the tongue, and on the tonsils.” (MedicalDaily.com) (3)

The bottom line?

As Dr. Aimee R. Kreimer and colleagues wrote: “Human papillomavirus type 16 (HPV16) infection is causing an increasing number of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States and Europe.” (1) Dr. Kreimer is from the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health in Rockville, MD.


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