HPV Exposure and the Increasing Prevalence of Head and Neck Cancer

HPV Exposure

Allyson Gregoire

Master’s Student in Epidemiology

In recent years, we have seen an increase in head and neck cancers due to a viral infection known as human papillomavirus (HPV).

Because HPV is usually a sexually transmitted infection (STI), and with oral sex becoming a more common practice among sexually active adults in the US, it is believed that the increasing rate of HPV-related head and neck cancers is due to infection via oral sex.1 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is believed that 70% of all head and neck cancers affecting the oropharynx region in the US were attributable to HPV infection.2

Perhaps the best way to reduce the risk of certain cancers from HPV exposure is to increase HPV vaccination.

Several practices can reduce the possibility of transmission of HPV during oral sex. By practicing safe-sex procedures—such as using dental dams, a prophylactic similar to condoms designed specifically for protection from STIs during oral sex—one can limit exposure to their partner’s bodily fluids by reducing exposure to STIs.3 Dental dams can be more difficult to find than more traditional prophylactics. But they can be purchased online or made from traditional condoms. This CDC tutorial, for example, shows how to use a dental dam and how to make one out of a traditional condom.6

 Perhaps the best way to reduce the risk of head and neck cancers due to HPV exposure from oral sex is to increase HPV vaccination among diverse populations. The vaccine is recommended for children around ages 11 or 12.4 Original recommendations stated that girls and women were able to receive the vaccination up to the age of 26, with boys and men eligible up to the age of 21.4 A recent change recommends vaccination for men and women between the ages of 27 and 45.5


  1. Nguyen, N. P., Nguyen, L. M., Thomas, S., Hong-Ly, B., Chi, A., Vos, P., Karlsson, U., Vinh-Hung, V., International Geriatric Radiation Oncology Group (2016). Oral sex and oropharyngeal cancer: The role of the primary care physicians. Medicine, 95(28), e4228.
  2. With HPV infection accounting for approximately 12,885 cases of cancer at the oropharynx region, this was the site with the highest number of cancer cases attributable to HPV infection. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). How Many Cancers Are Linked with HPV Each Year? https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/hpv/statistics/cases.htm. Accessed November 19, 2018.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). STD Risk and Oral Sex - CDC Fact Sheet. https://www.cdc.gov/std/healthcomm/stdfact-stdriskandoralsex.htm. Accessed November 19, 2018.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HPV Vaccine Recommendations. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/hpv/hcp/recommendations.html. Accessed November 19, 2018.
  5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA approves expanded use of Gardasil 9 to include individuals 27 through 45 years old. https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm622715.htm. Accessed November 19, 2018.
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Dental Dam Use. https://www.cdc.gov/condomeffectiveness/Dental-dam-use.html. Accessed December, 3 2018.

About the Author

 Allyson GregoireAllyson Gregoire is a second-year master’s student in epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. She is currently conducting research with Kelly Bakulski at the School of Public Health and Erin Ware at the Institute for Social Research on the effects of environmental risk factors on depressive symptoms among US adults. Gregoire is also a current member of the e-board for the Women in Health Leadership group at the school of public health. Allyson is interested in understanding how everyday exposures to environmental toxicants affect our overall well-being and health.