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HPV-Related Throat and Oral Cancers

Human papillomavirus (HPV) has recently become an important risk factor in head and neck cancers. In fact, this common infection now causes most oropharyngeal cancers in the United States and is a significant risk factor for head and neck cancers.

Oropharyngeal cancers begin in the oropharynx, which is the part of the throat that includes the tonsils and the base of the tongue. HPV-related cancers, which are a type of squamous cell carcinomas, often have a better prognosis, even in advanced cases, than those caused by other factors, such as tobacco and alcohol use. UC San Diego Health is a recognized leader in HPV-related cancers.

Our Services

We provide expertise in all aspects of care for these cancers, including:
  • Experienced oncologists to ensure an accurate diagnosis
  • Personalized and supportive care, with state-of-the-art genetic tumor testing to individualize treatment options
  • Dedicated head and neck surgeons with extensive experience in minimally invasive robotic and laser surgeries, as well as reconstruction 
  • Opportunities to participate in novel clinical trials, including some that are unique to our center 
  • A head and neck team, including experts in voice and swallowing rehabilitation
  • All the resources of a world-class cancer center, including nutrition advice, support groups, and mind/body classes

“Treatment at a comprehensive cancer center offers potential advantages, including the ability to detect molecular alteration with accuracy, and availability of novel therapies in clinical trials that can be personalized to a person’s cancer but are not yet approved.”
- Ezra Cohen, MD
Associate Director, Moores Cancer Center

Dr. Cohen in exam room

Our medical oncologists (including Dr. Ezra Cohen, pictured here) work with your care team to determine the most effective treatment.

Diagnosing and Treating HPV Cancers

We use genetic sequencing to evaluate each patient's unique genetic blueprint and tumor type. With this critical information, we determine which treatment options—including potential new therapies being studied in clinical trials—may be most effective. Treatment decisions are also based on the size and location of the tumor, how advanced the disease is, and the patient's overall health. Treatment may include surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. (For more information about diagnosis and treatment, see Head and Neck Cancer Treatment Options.) 

HPV-Related Cancer Research

Researchers and physicians are gaining a better understanding of how HPV-related cancers develop. In fact, research at UC San Diego contributed to the first comprehensive genomic map of head and neck squamous cell carcinomas. That research found that HPV-associated tumors have specific mutations and molecular alterations that make them different from other head and neck cancers, such as tumors caused by smoking. Our goal is that by correcting these mutations through targeted gene therapy, we can improve treatment of these cancers or prevent them altogether. These are challenges that our physicians and scientists continue to work on.

Our researchers continue to study the specific mutations that are found in HPV-related cancers, and whether treatment should change based on whether HPV is involved. For information about current clinical research, see Head and Neck Cancer Research and Clinical Trials.

About HPV-Related Cancers

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of related viruses that can infect the skin and lining of the mouth, throat, and genitals. It is spread through direct skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Infection is common; in fact, more than half of sexually active people are infected with an HPV virus at some time in their lives.

Sexually transmitted HPV can be categorized as low-risk (for example, the types that cause warts) or high-risk. Most HPV infections do not lead to any symptoms and go away within a few years. Some infections, however, can persist. Persistent infections with high-risk types of HPV may eventually lead to cancer, a process that can take 10 to 20 years from the time of initial infection.

Types of HPV-Related Cancers

The most common type of HPV-caused cancer is cervical cancer. It also can cause anal cancer, vaginal, vulvar, and penile cancer. More recently, HPV infections have been linked to increasing numbers of oropharyngeal cancer, which affects the part of the throat that includes the tonsils and the base of the tongue.

Symptoms and Risks

Many of the symptoms of HPV-related head and neck cancers are not unique to cancer, and not all patients will experience all symptoms. They may include:

  • Noticeable mass in throat
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Trouble swallowing

Patients with HPV-related cancers are often younger and healthier than those with head and neck cancers not caused by HPV. Some factors may increase the risk of developing cancer after a high-risk HPV infection, including smoking, a weakened immune system, or poor oral hygiene.