A Guide To Throat Cancer Caused By Oral HPV (Human Papilloma Virus in the mouth/throat) Infection

Patient Experience

  • Reference Number: HEY-933/2023
  • Departments: ENT
  • Last Updated: 30 November 2023


This leaflet has been produced to give you general information about oral HPV Infection, the role it may have in causing some throat cancers and the impact that it may have on personal relationships. It is not intended to replace discussion between yourself and the health care team, but may act as a starting point for discussion. If after reading it you have any concerns or require further explanation, please discuss this with the health care team looking after you.

When was I infected?

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection.

Most people who contract oral HPV remain well with no symptoms of HPV.  It is estimated that the majority of sexually active adults are exposed to HPV during their lifetime.  Oral HPV is passed on through sexual contact with an infected partner.

Having oral HPV does not mean that a partner has been promiscuous or unfaithful; it only takes one infected partner to acquire HPV.  Exposure does not always lead to infection, infection may have happened years ago.

It is still being investigated why some infections become persistent.  Persistent oral HPV infections possibly give rise to increased risk for mouth/throat cancer.  The time from oral HPV infection to a mouth/throat cancer starting is estimated to be between 10 and 30 years.

Why did the infection persist?

Most studies on oral HPV infection show that infections usually clear without treatment within a year.  Older age and smoking may contribute to persistent infection.  However, the factors leading to persistent infection are still unclear.  There is some evidence to show that stopping smoking may help prevent persistent HPV infection.

Is there any treatment for oral HPV infection?

No, there are currently no treatments for oral HPV infection.  Most oral infections will be cleared by a healthy immune system without the need for treatment.

In a small percentage of cases the HPV infection may persist, but we do not yet know why this happens.  There is some promising evidence for vaccine helping to stop oral HPV infection happening, but this is still under investigation.

Can you screen my family or me for HPV infection or throat/mouth cancer?

At the moment there are no approved screening tests available for oral HPV infections or for detection of the type of mouth/throat cancer associated with oral HPV infection.

Does my treatment for cancer get rid of the HPV infection?

Probably.  In one study, one year after treatment, only 5% of people had detectable oral HPV.

Will I give HPV to my partner?  Is my partner at risk of getting cancer?

HPV is not transmitted by casual contact (sharing drinks, kissing on the cheek).  Persistent HPV infection was probably present many years before the development of a related cancer.  Partners could be exposed to HPV long before diagnosis.

Partners of people with persistent oral HPV may have a slightly increased risk of developing HPV associated cancers.  However, these cancers are still quite rare, so their absolute risk of developing persistent infection and subsequent cancer is quite low.  Because of the low risk there is not necessarily a need to change sexual behaviours to stop infection.  With new partners, people may consider talking about barrier protection such as condoms, which can also help to stop transmission of HPV as well as other sexually transmitted infections.

Studies have shown that partners of someone with HPV related mouth/throat cancer do not have an increased rate of oral HPV infection.

Should I change my sexual behaviour? Should I tell my partner?

Most people (95%) discuss their HPV status with their partner, and 20% reported that this had some negative impact on their relationship.  It is important to understand that exposure to HPV (very common) does not mean cancer (very rare).

There is no requirement to tell partners that a cancer may have been caused by HPV infection, this is the patient’s choice.  There are no tests or treatments recommended for partners with HPV related disease.

Should I get the HPV vaccine?

No, if you are already infected with oral HPV the vaccine will not help to clear it up.

Key Points:

  • HPV infection is common in adults.
  • HPV infection very rarely leads to a cancer.
  • HPV is not transmitted by casual contact.
  • Partners of someone with HPV related mouth/throat cancer do not have an increased rate of oral HPV infection.
  • Partners of someone with HPV related mouth/throat cancer have a very low risk of developing a similar cancer.

If you have any other questions or feel that something is not clear, please contact the Clinical Nurse Specialist – (01482) 461085