Human papillomavirus, also known as HPV, is an extremely common viral STD. This virus can affect different parts of your body, including your mouth. So what are the causes, risk factors, symptoms, and complications of HPV in the mouth?
What is HPV in mouth?
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the United States and around the world. HPV isn’t a single virus — according to the CDC, there are more than 100 strains of HPV, and at least 40 of them can be spread through sexual contact. The CDC also estimates that around 10 percent of men and 3.6 percent of women have oral HPV.
There are low-risk and high-risk strains of HPV. Low-risk strains are more likely to cause warts, whereas high-risk strains can cause cancer in some cases. The strains that cause warts and cancer aren’t the same; however, since HPV is such a common infection, it’s also possible to be infected with multiple strains at the same time.
What causes HPV in mouth?
Oral HPV is spread through direct sexual contact, and the virus enters your body through small cuts or injuries which may not be visible to the naked eye. You can get oral HPV after giving oral sex to someone who has been infected with genital or anal HPV.
According to a study published by the journal The Laryngoscope, there is some evidence that oral HPV can be acquired through open-mouth kissing with someone who has an oral HPV infection. However, the evidence on this topic is limited and more research is still needed.
There are also certain factors that can increase your risk of getting oral HPV. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine Research, these risk factors include:
- Number of sex partners
- Frequent oral sex
- Alcohol consumption
- A weakened immune system
Symptoms of oral HPV
Most people who have HPV are completely asymptomatic. It can take years for symptoms of HPV to develop after the initial infection, which explains why someone in a committed relationship can exhibit new symptoms of HPV even if they haven’t been unfaithful.
In many cases, our own immune system is able to clear an HPV infection on its own after some time. However, it’s impossible to predict who will be able to do this and who won’t. According to a study published in the Journal of General Virology, oral HPV clearance rates can range anywhere between 0 and 80 percent, and the median time for viral clearance is between 6.5 to 18 months.
Some people with oral HPV can develop warts in their throat, but this is uncommon.
Unfortunately, oral HPV can lead to oropharyngeal cancer in some cases, even if you’ve never had any noticeable symptoms of HPV. According to the University of California San Francisco Health, symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer can include:
- Abnormal breathing sounds
- Coughing up blood
- Sore throat that doesn’t get better over time
- Difficulty or pain while swallowing
- Swollen lymph nodes in your neck
- Lesions on your tonsils
- Jaw swelling or pain
- Lumps in your neck or cheeks
- Unexplained weight loss
Prevention and treatment of HPV in mouth
According to MedlinePlus, most oral HPV infections will go away on their own within 2 years of the initial infection without causing symptoms or health complications. But as we mentioned above, there’s no reliable way to predict whether or not you will be able to eliminate this infection on your own.
If your doctor finds HPV warts in your throat, different methods could be used to remove them. Your healthcare provider could also choose to monitor the warts over a period of time to check how they evolve naturally.
The best way to prevent complications from oral HPV is to prevent the initial infection through safe sex practices and vaccination. According to the CDC, HPV vaccination is recommended for all boys and girls starting at 11-12 years old. If you didn’t get vaccinated as a child, you can also get the vaccine before you’re 26 years old. In some cases, you could also get vaccinated against HPV even if you’re over the age of 26 — however, the vaccine is considered to be less beneficial in this age group, since most people will already have been exposed to HPV by then.
Children between the ages of 9 to 14 years old only need to receive two doses of the HPV vaccine, 6 to 12 months apart. Teens, young adults, and children with a weakened immune system should get three doses of the vaccine.
HPV vaccination has been shown to significantly lower HPV infection rates, and the number of precancerous and cancerous lesions associated with HPV. Getting vaccinated, having safe sex, and getting tested for STDs regularly are the best methods to stay safe against common STDs, such as oral HPV.
- HPV and Oropharyngeal Cancer - cdc.gov
- To kiss or not to kiss in the era of the human papillomavirus–associated head and neck cancer “epidemic”? - onlinelibrary.wiley.com
- Risk Factors for Oral Human Papillomavirus Infection in Healthy Individuals: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis - ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
- Oral human papillomavirus infection incidence and clearance: a systematic review of the literature - pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
- Oral human papillomavirus infection - ucsfhealth.org
- Oral human papillomavirus infection - medlineplus.gov
- Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccination: What Everyone Should Know - cdc.gov