University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI)

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and Cancer

Bovine Papilloma VirusSome cancers of the oropharynx (back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils) have been linked with Human Papillomavirus, also known as HPV.

Genital human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. More than 40 HPV types can infect the genital areas of men and women, including the skin of the penis, vulva (area outside the vagina), and anus, and the linings of the vagina, cervix, and rectum. These types can also infect the lining of the mouth and throat. Most people infected will not display any symptoms and the immune system will get rid of the HPV infection without any treatment. However in some cases HPV can lead to cancer.

HPV prevalence in oropharyngeal cancers significantly increased over time. As of 2010, the rate (per 100,000) of oropharynx cancer among men is higher than the rate (per 100,000) of cervical cancer in women. This is primarily due to the prevalence of HPV. If recent incidence trends continue, the annual number of HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers is expected to surpass the annual number of cervical cancers by the year 2020.

Most people exposed to HPV will not develop cancer, however, in many cases they are not able to rid their body of the HPV infection. In these cases the virus may cause cellular damage that will eventually allow a tumor to grow. It may take years for these damaged cells to become cancerous and we cannot yet predict whose HPV infection will disappear and who will develop cancer. When a head and neck cancer is diagnosed, the tumor itself can be tested for HPV, and that is currently the only way to test if a cancer is related to HPV.

In general, patients with HPV-positive head and neck cancer have better outcomes than patients with head and neck cancer that is not related to HPV. Both types of cancer are treated the same way with a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Treatment decisions are based on:

  • size and location of the tumor,
  • stage of the disease,
  • the overall health of the patient, and
  • preferences of the patient.

Current research is focused on whether to treat HPV related cancers differently than non-HPV cancer.

For more information, please see our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section.

Additional information about HPV and cancer: