Did you know that most HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers may not be visibly detectable because of their location? Anatomical sites for this virus are most often located at the back of the throat, base of tongue, or tonsil regions.1 Performing oral cancer screenings on every patient that includes an enhanced extra- and intraoral visual and tactile exam is a vital part of our role as clinicians, but is this alone enough?
According to the CDC, most sexually active people will develop an HPV infection during their lifetime, and most will not even be aware of it because 9 out of 10 of these individuals will clear this virus on their own.2 However, for some, this virus can remain dormant and return later as cancer. Educating our patients about the signs and symptoms is imperative for early discovery.
You might also be interested in: Oral cancer screening: Resources for dental professionals
During your patient interview and/or while performing your oral cancer screening, be sure to ask about the following warning signs or symptoms:3
- Difficulty swallowing or a sensation that something is stuck in their throat
- A persistent cough that does not resolve after several days/weeks
- Any change or hoarseness in voice that persists for more than a few weeks
- Unilateral ear pain
- Any painless, fixated lumps on the outside of the head/neck present for two or more weeks
Positive responses to any of the above questions warrant a referral to a specialist. Please remember that approximately one person every hour of every day dies from oral cancer in the US.4 Dental hygienists are the front line of defense in early discovery. Our efforts through education and awareness campaigns can save lives! Please the fight to beat oral cancer.
Originally published in 2020. Updated in April 2022.
1. HPV and Oropharyngeal Cancer. Center for Disease Control. Page last reviewed March 14, 2018. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/hpv/basic_info/hpv_oropharyngeal.htm
2. About HPV. Centers for Disease Control. Page last reviewed April 29, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/hpv/parents/about-hpv.html
3. HPV/Oral Cancer Facts. The Oral Cancer Foundation. https://oralcancerfoundation.org/understanding/hpv/hpv-oral-cancer-facts/
4. Cancer Stat Facts: Oral Cavity and Pharynx Cancer. National Cancer Institute. https://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/oralcav.html