HPV and Head & Neck Cancer: Linked?


Patient Education

HPV and Head & Neck Cancer: Linked?

What Is HPV?

Human Papillomavirus(HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection, is now understood to play a major role in causing head and neck cancers, alongside its well-known connection with cervical cancer. Although the connection between HPV and cervical cancer is widely recognised, there has been growing interest in the relationship between HPV and head and neck cancer in recent times.

HPV infection is very common, affecting the majority of men and women who have been sexually active. Regardless of whether someone has had multiple sexual partners or just one, the risk of contracting at least one type of genital HPV remains. This risk persists even for individuals who delay sexual activity until marriage or maintain monogamous relationships, as they can still be exposed to HPV if their partner has been infected.

Transmission of HPV primarily occurs through skin-to-skin contact during sexual activities, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Notably, the virus can be transmitted even when the infected individual shows no visible signs or symptoms. While less common, HPV can also be spread through genital contact without intercourse.

HPV Can Oropharyngeal cancer

Every year, Singapore sees a minimum of 800 new cases of head and neck cancer. Globally, the prevalence of this cancer category is on the rise, potentially due to the increased risk of human Papillomavirus(HPV) infection, specifically linked to oropharyngeal cancer, a subtype of head and neck cancer.

Oropharyngeal cancer develops in the oropharynx, the middle part of the throat. HPV can infect the mouth and throat, causing cancers in the oropharynx, including the back of the throat, the base of the tongue, and the tonsils, leading to oropharyngeal cancer.

Symptoms & Risk Factors of Oropharyngeal Cancer

Symptoms of Oropharyngeal cancer:

  • Continual blood in saliva
  • Discomfort when eating or swallowing
  • Long-lasting throat soreness
  • Alteration in voice
  • Persistent sensation of a throat lump
  • Continuous ear pain
  • Challenges with mouth-opening
  • Neck lump (often indicating cancer spread to lymph nodes)

Risk Factors of Oropharyngeal Cancer:

  • Excessive alcohol intake
  • Infection with Human Papillomavirus(HPV)
  • Inadequate nutrition, particularly lacking in dietary fibre
  • Weakened immune system conditions, such as individuals taking immunosuppressants or those with HIV

Can We Prevent Oropharyngeal Cancer Risk?

You can take proactive measures to minimise your risk.

Here are some steps you can take:

  • Prevent Human Papillomavirus(HPV) infection. Engaging in multiple sexual partners or oral sex heightens the risk of contracting HPV. Consult your doctor regarding the HPV vaccine.
  • Refrain from smoking. If you currently smoke cigarettes or use tobacco, consider quitting. Continuing to smoke significantly raises the likelihood of developing secondary cancers in the mouth, throat, voice box, or lungs. Seek assistance from your healthcare provider, who can offer various resources and connect you with professionals to aid in quitting.
  • Limit the consumption of alcohol-containing beverages, especially in excessive or regular amounts. Alcohol amplifies the carcinogenic effects of tobacco, making it crucial to avoid this combination.
  • Maintain a balanced diet and incorporate regular exercise into your routine.
  • Schedule regular appointments with both your doctor and dentist. They can conduct thorough examinations of your mouth and throat, detecting any early changes in their development.

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.

Vaccination is not recommended for everyone older than age 26 years. However, some adults aged 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.

Yes, HPV and Head & Neck Cancer Are Linked

In conclusion, the connection between HPV infection and oropharyngeal cancer underscores the importance of preventive measures and early detection. By promoting HPV vaccination, adopting healthy lifestyle choices, and maintaining regular medical check-ups, individuals can significantly reduce their risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer. Additionally, ongoing research and public awareness efforts are vital in advancing our understanding of HPV-related cancers and enhancing preventive strategies to safeguard public health.

 Always prioritise your health, and if you experience any symptoms, don't hesitate to consult our specialists in head and neck cancers. You can schedule an appointment with our esteemed specialists, Dr Tan Chee Seng or Dr Leong Swan Swan, for expert guidance and personalised care.


“Expert knowledge means better care for cancer”


Contributed by:

Dr Tan Chee Seng

MBBS (Singapore)

MRCP (United Kingdom)