Oral HPV: what it is, related health risks, and more

Medically reviewed by Rosanna Sutherby, PharmD on February 3, 2020. Written by Laura Kleist. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. It can affect different areas of the body, including the mouth and throat—and increase the risk for certain health conditions. 

Learn more about oral HPV here—including possible symptoms, the link between HPV and oral cancer, and more.

Oral HPV: what it is

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is a common sexually transmitted infection which has more than 200 unique strains. Of all strains of the infection, 40 HPV types are capable of affecting the throat, mouth, and genital areas. 

Oral HPV occurs when the virus is transmitted to the mouth, typically through oral sex. Both women and men can have oral HPV, but it’s more common among men. While unprotected oral sex is the most common cause of oral HPV infections, other risk factors include multiple sexual partners and poor oral health.

In general, the HPV infection clears without treatment in 1-2 years, but this isn’t always the case because the virus can lie dormant in the body without going away. So if either you or your partner has a dormant, undiagnosed HPV infection, the virus may become active at any time and continually pass between you. 

Ultimately, over the course of several years, oral HPV may lead to the development of oropharyngeal cancer—or cancer that develops in the back of the throat. An estimated 70% of oropharyngeal cancer cases are thought to be caused by oral HPV. 

Below, you’ll find more information on oral HPV symptoms, associated conditions, and possible treatment options.

Oral HPV symptoms

In most cases, oral HPV does not produce symptoms; however, that does not mean an asymptomatic infection is harmless. In many cases, the virus goes undetected for months or even years, which—unfortunately—can allow the infection to spread and become more severe. 

In rare cases, oral infection with a low-risk strain of HPV, also referred to as a wart-causing strain, may produce benign, wart-like growths within the oral cavity. These growths may appear as singular bumps or as a clustered collection of small, slightly raised growths. 

Even with no noticeable symptoms, oral infection with a high-risk strain of human papillomavirus can increase your risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer, which is why early detection is so critical. Early signs of oral cancer may include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Persistent sore throat and hoarseness
  • Swollen lymph nodes or tonsils
  • A sore, sometimes painful bump that does not diminish within three weeks
  • A noticeable lump on the outside of the neck
  • Discoloration of the tissues within the mouth and throat
  • Jaw swelling and pain
  • A persistent earache that does not resolve within three weeks

If you’re experiencing symptoms like these and don’t know why, talk with your healthcare provider to learn what next steps they recommend for you.

Is there an at-home test for oral HPV?

It’s worth keeping in mind that at-home HPV tests are designed to detect the presence of high-risk cervical HPV, not oral HPV. There are currently no clinically-validated home oral HPV tests to detect the virus’s presence in your mouth or throat.

Oropharyngeal cancer

Oropharyngeal cancer affects the tissues of the oropharynx, which include the back of your tongue, your tonsils, your soft palate, and the walls of your throat. 

It’s important to note that while an estimated 7% of people are living with oral HPV, only about 1% of those individuals test positive for the specific strain associated with oropharyngeal cancer.   

Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is the most common of all HPV-related cancers, with approximately 10,900 new cases diagnosed each year. 

Cervical cancer and precancer are characterized by abnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain, pain during intercourse, heavy vaginal discharge, and (occasionally) an unpleasant vaginal odor. According to research, two high-risk strains of the virus—HPV-16 and HPV-18—are responsible for over 70% of cervical cancers and precancerous lesions.


Easily screen for high-risk HPV strains associated with cervical cancer with the at-home HPV Test for women.


Vaginal and vulvar cancer

Vaginal cancer is typically associated with vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia—abnormal cells within the vagina’s inner lining—which is frequently caused by HPV infection. Researchers estimate that HPV is the culprit behind approximately 600 new cases of this cancer each year. 

Vulvar cancer, which is also associated with HPV infection, begins in the skin cells on the outer portion of the genitals. 

Abnormal vaginal bleeding, watery discharge, painful urination, pelvic pain, constipation, persistent itching, tenderness, unusual skin changes, and open sores are characteristic of these cancers. 

Anal cancer

HPV-related anal cancer is a relatively rare condition that affects both men and women, with 2,000 and 4,200 new diagnoses each year, respectively. Researchers believe the same two strains of HPV—HPV 16 and HPV 18—are responsible for approximately 92% of cases. Anal itching, pain in the anal area, growths in the anal canal, and anal or rectal bleeding are hallmark signs of the disease. 

Genital warts

Genital warts are contagious but benign growths that can develop on the outer surface of both the male and female genitals. Those infected with wart-causing strains of the virus typically experience genital itching, small swellings in the genital area, clusters of cauliflower-shaped growths, and bleeding during intercourse. In many cases, genital warts are so small they’re virtually undetectable. 

Common questions about oral HPV

What does oral HPV look like?

In most cases, oral HPV does not exhibit symptoms; however, depending on the strain of the infection, some people may experience growths within the oral cavity that are:

  • Pink, red, flesh-colored, or white
  • Small and dense to the touch
  • Flat or slightly raised
  • Slightly rough or smooth
  • Singular or in a group that resembles a pebble- or cauliflower-like mass

What is oral HPV?

Oral HPV is an HPV infection that affects the oral cavity and is usually caused by oral sex.

How common is oral HPV?

It’s thought that approximately 3.6% of women and 10% of men in the United States are living with an oropharyngeal HPV infection. Among all age groups, the infection is most common among older adults.


References

1. HPV and Cancer. National Cancer Institute. URL. Accessed February 3, 2020.

2. HPV and Oropharyngeal Cancer. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed February 3, 2020.

3. How Many Cancers Are Linked with HPV Each Year? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed February 3, 2020.

4. Ahmed HG, Bensumaidea SH, Alshammari FD, et al. Prevalence of Human Papillomavirus subtypes 16 and 18 among Yemeni Patients with Cervical Cancer. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2017;18(6):1543-1548. Published 2017 Jun 25. doi:10.22034/APJCP.2017.18.6.1543

5. Vaginal cancer. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed February 3, 2020.

6. Vulvar cancer. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed February 3, 2020.

7. What Is HPV? Anal Cancer Foundation. URL. Accessed February 3, 2020.

8. Genital warts. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed February 3, 2020.

Everlywell makes lab testing easy and convenient with at-home collection and digital results in days. Learn More