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

  • Reference Number: HEY-933/2017
  • Departments: ENT

This leaflet has been produced to give you general information. Most of your questions should be answered by this leaflet. It is not intended to replace the discussion between you and the healthcare 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 a member of the healthcare team.

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.

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 the 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 of people 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.

General Advice and Consent

Most of your questions should have been answered by this leaflet, but remember that this is only a starting point for discussion with the healthcare team.

Consent to treatment

Before any doctor, nurse or therapist examines or treats you, they must seek your consent or permission. In order to make a decision, you need to have information from health professionals about the treatment or investigation which is being offered to you. You should always ask them more questions if you do not understand or if you want more information.

The information you receive should be about your condition, the alternatives available to you, and whether it carries risks as well as the benefits. What is important is that your consent is genuine or valid. That means:

  • you must be able to give your consent
  • you must be given enough information to enable you to make a decision
  • you must be acting under your own free will and not under the strong influence of another person

Information about you

We collect and use your information to provide you with care and treatment. As part of your care, information about you will be shared between members of a healthcare team, some of whom you may not meet. Your information may also be used to help train staff, to check the quality of our care, to manage and plan the health service, and to help with research. Wherever possible we use anonymous data.

We may pass on relevant information to other health organisations that provide you with care. All information is treated as strictly confidential and is not given to anyone who does not need it. If you have any concerns please ask your doctor, or the person caring for you.

Under the Data Protection Act (1998) we are responsible for maintaining the confidentiality of any information we hold about you. For further information visit the following page: Confidential Information about You.

If you or your carer needs information about your health and wellbeing and about your care and treatment in a different format, such as large print, braille or audio, due to disability, impairment or sensory loss, please advise a member of staff and this can be arranged.