Content Dam Diq Online Articles 2015 07 Hpv

HPV and oral sex: You want me to discuss what with my patients?!

July 21, 2015
Developing a protocol for educating patients about HPV and oral cancer can be challenging. Catrice Opichka, RDH, offers some recommendations to help you get started.
Do you remember when smoking cessation discussions were the most difficult conversations we had with our patients? Do you recall the first battles we had discussing the harmful effects of chewing tobacco? The discussion of smoking and chewing as risk factors for oral cancer have become, for many of us, as common as discussing the effects of bacteria in periodontal disease. In the 21st century, smoking and chewing are among the easier topics we have to discuss with our patients. The human papillomavirus (HPV) has changed the way we look at cancer risk and detection, making patient education a bit more complicated. 20 years ago, if someone had told me that I would be finding ways to educate patients about the risks of early sexual behavior on their oral health, I would have said, "Not a chance." However, that is exactly what has happened.

The facts about HPV and oral cancer

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Although most types of HPV are not harmful to people, more than 40 strains can infect the genital areas, as well as the mouth and throat, and these can cause cancer. Because HPV is often asymptomatic, most people who become infected do not know they have the virus. For the majority of individuals, the infection clears up on its own. For some people, however, the virus interferes with the normal cell function that prevents excess growth, leading to precancerous cells and eventually cancer.(1)

Recent reports are showing that, in medical centers across the United States, HPV is now responsible for more than half of all oropharyngeal cancers diagnosed.(2) According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, HPV is now the leading cause of all oropharyngeal cancers.(3) However, most dental professionals rarely discuss this disease with their patients. Discussing the cause-and-effect relationship between oral sex and oral cancer is not easy for anyone, but since 80% of individuals in the United States will become infected with HPV in their lifetimes, it is a topic worth investigating and sharing with our patients.(3)

As dental professionals, we can do many things to help fight HPV-related oral cancer. Of these, I believe we should focus on the following two in clinical practice.

The oral cancer exam

If you ask a room full of dentists and dental hygienists if they do oral cancer screenings on each patient at every visit, the answer is most often "no." Two-thirds of all the dental hygienists admit to doing intraoral examinations only when the patient is known to be a heavy smoker or a user of chewing tobacco. However, many patients diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer have never smoked or used chewing tobacco. If we continue to limit our cancer screenings to patients with "traditional risk factors," oral cancers will go undiagnosed.

Feeling rusty? Continuing education is essential to brush up on the skills we have not used in a while. Whether you take a refresher course in oral pathology or attend a seminar on oral cancer screening and new detection technology, it is important to feel comfortable with your cancer detection skills. Some organizations, such as the Oral Cancer Foundation and American Cancer Society, provide valuable online resources that we can review to improve our efforts.

The oral cancer exam can also be a fantastic tool to open the door for patient education. Verbally walking patients through the exam not only makes them aware of the high level of care you are providing, but allows you to teach as you examine.

HPV education

Discussing HPV is not easy, and there are a number of things to take into consideration before embarking on a new mission to spread the word about this issue and the behaviors that put our patients at risk. I am not suggesting that we all go into our offices tomorrow and start talking about oral cancer and oral sex. The journey to becoming comfortable with educating our patients about HPV is a little like climbing a mountain. Having a plan is the first step in creating a protocol for the whole office.

1. Start at basecamp.
The first step in creating a protocol for HPV education takes place within the dental team. Like implementing any system in the dental practice, everyone needs to be on board and have an understanding of what is expected in communication with patients. The whole team needs understand the importance of the cancer exam and the education that follows. It is imperative to have everyone "speaking the same language" when discussing HPV to ensure that we do our best to use terminology that will not be offensive to patients.

The best way to ensure that everyone understands their roles in HPV education is to set time aside for educating the entire team. Remember, even among the dental team, there will be individuals who are more comfortable with this topic than others. The agenda for these team meetings may differ from practice to practice, but common exercises should include creating a written and verbal protocol, roleplaying, and pursuing continuing education about pathology, cancer detection, and patient communication.

2. Create the map.
Creating written and verbal protocols for the practice will help to map out procedures and guidelines for discussing HPV. Creating a consent form for discussing HPV with minors and incorporating new medical history questions are just a couple of examples of ways that we can introduce HPV education into our practices. The Oral Cancer Foundation and Centers for Disease Control are excellent resources for educational materials, such as pamphlets and brochures, to offer patients.

3. Prepare.
Continuing education is the key to achieving successful results. Nevertheless, many of us barely feel comfortable talking about HPV, much less facilitating a team meeting to train the rest of the individuals in our offices. Fortunately, there are resources and organizations that can help. Consider asking an oral surgeon in your community to come into your practice to discuss pathology. You can invite a representative from a company that manufactures cancer-screening technology, such asOralID or LED Dental, to demonstrate the latest tools in cancer detection devices. Dental study groups, such as the Seattle Study Club, provide advanced education on the most relevant topics in dentistry, and they incorporate these topics into their yearly curriculum. These resources can help provide the necessary training to prepare your team.

4. Train, train, train.
You wouldn’t attempt to climb to the summit of Mt. Everest after lacing up your hiking boots for the first time. Starting small and practicing is essential to achieving big goals. Everything we do that seems uncomfortable in the beginning eventually becomes fluid after practice. (OK, maybe climbing Everest isn’t fluid for anyone, but you get the point!) Conversations about HPV, the risk of oral cancer, and the sexual behaviors that increase that risk will all become easier with practice.

HPV can be difficult to discuss. However, getting the dental team on board with improved cancer detection, a protocol for patient education, and the tools necessary for excellent communication will allow us to conquer the challenge of HPV education for our patients.

More information


1. "HPV and Cancer." National Cancer Institute.
2. "HPV-Associated Cancers Statistics." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated September 2, 2014.
3. "The HPV Connection." Oral Cancer Foundation. Updated April 2014.


Catrice Opichka, RDH, has been active in the field of dentistry for 26 years, and she has been practicing as a registered dental hygienist for the last 18 years. She is the owner of Pure Education LLC, an international lecturer, a Seattle Study Club Education Advisory Board member, and a clinical instructor of dental hygiene at PIMA Medical Institute. Catrice lectures on treating the oncology patient, HPV and oral cancer risk, the oral effects of addiction, and complex communication in the clinical setting. To learn more about this topic, contact Catrice at [email protected] or (920) 246-4165.