Healthcare provider talking with patient about oral HPV

Oral HPV: What It Is, Related Health Risks, and More

Updated January 2, 2024. Medically reviewed by Rosanna Sutherby, PharmD. 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.


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Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. [1] 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. [2]

Oral HPV occurs when the virus is transmitted to the mouth, typically through oral sex. People of any gender can have oral HPV, but in the United States it’s more common among men. [3] 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. [4] 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. [5] 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 or that it cannot be transmitted to a partner. In some cases, the virus goes undetected in a latent state for months or even years, but later becomes reactivated if immune control is lost. [4] 

In rare cases, oral infection with a low-risk strain of HPV may produce sores and/or warts in the mouth or on the lips (or, in some cases, in the throat). [6]

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 [7]:

  • 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 lab 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. 

Note that while an estimated 3.6% of women and 10% of men have oral HPV, about 70% of oropharyngeal cancer cases in the United States are associated with HPV. [5]  

Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is the most common of all HPV-related cancers, with approximately 10,800 new cases associated with HPV diagnosed each year. [8]

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 about 66% of cervical cancers. [9]


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. [10] 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. [11,12]

Anal Cancer

HPV-related anal cancer is a relatively rare condition that affects people of all sexes, with 2,000 and 4,200 new diagnoses each year for men and women, respectively. Researchers believe the same two strains of HPV—HPV 16 and HPV 18—are responsible for approximately 92% of cases. [13] Anal itching, pain in the anal area, growths in the anal canal, and anal or rectal bleeding are hallmark signs of the disease. Rectal bleeding could also be a symptom of colon cancer. If you suspect that you have colon cancer, try an at-home colon cancer screening test.

Genital Warts

Genital warts are contagious but benign growths that can develop on the outer surface of both the male and female genitals. [14] 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 [15]:

  • 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. [5] Among all age groups, the infection is most common among older adults.


How to Test for HPV

Skin Tag vs. HPV: Symptoms & Treatment Options

Can You Still Be Sexually Active With HPV?


References

1. Garcia MR, Leslie SW, Wray AA. Sexually Transmitted Infections. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; May 30, 2023.

2. Bharti AH, Chotaliya K, Marfatia YS. An update on oral human papillomavirus infection. Indian J Sex Transm Dis AIDS. 2013;34(2):77-82. doi:10.4103/0253-7184.120533

3. Gillison ML, Broutian T, Pickard RK, et al. Prevalence of oral HPV infection in the United States, 2009-2010. JAMA. 2012;307(7):693-703. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.101

4. Malagón T, MacCosham A, Burchell AN, et al. Proportion of Incident Genital Human Papillomavirus Detections not Attributable to Transmission and Potentially Attributable to Latent Infections: Implications for Cervical Cancer Screening. Clin Infect Dis. 2022;75(3):365-371. doi:10.1093/cid/ciab985

5. HPV and Oropharyngeal Cancer. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/hpv/basic_info/hpv_oropharyngeal.htm. Accessed November 29, 2023.

6. Oropharyngeal Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Infection. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15010-oropharyngeal-human-papilloma-virus-hpv-infection. Accessed November 29, 2023.

7. Jamal Z, Anjum F. Oropharyngeal Squamous Cell Carcinoma. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; April 27, 2023.

8. How Many Cancers Are Linked with HPV Each Year? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/hpv/statistics/cases.htm. Accessed November 29, 2023.

9. Human Papillomavirus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/hpv.html. Accessed November 29, 2023.

10. Frega A, Sopracordevole F, Assorgi C, et al. Vaginal intraepithelial neoplasia: a therapeutical dilemma. Anticancer Res. 2013;33(1):29-38.

11. Vaginal cancer. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/vaginal-cancer/symptoms-causes/syc-20352447. Accessed November 29, 2023.

12. Vulvar cancer. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/vulvar-cancer/symptoms-causes/syc-20368051. Accessed November 29, 2023.

13. What is HPV Cancer? Symptoms, Causes & Treatment. Anal Cancer Foundation. https://www.analcancerfoundation.org/what-is-anal-cancer/hpv-cancer/. Accessed November 29, 2023.

14. Genital warts. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/genital-warts/symptoms-causes/syc-20355234. Accessed November 29, 2023.

15. Candotto V, Lauritano D, Nardone M, et al. HPV infection in the oral cavity: epidemiology, clinical manifestations and relationship with oral cancer. Oral Implantol (Rome). 2017;10(3):209-220. Published 2017 Nov 30. doi:10.11138/orl/2017.10.3.209

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