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Screening for Oral Cancer

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

Mouth and throat cancers are on the rise. And the number one cause of these types of cancers is not from smoking, and not from alcohol use. These used to be the most common causes, but times have changed. Nowadays, the number one cause of oral cancer is from the HPV virus.





So what is the HPV virus?


According to recent studies, 79 million Americans are presently living with the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). The number of people who have oral HPV has continuously increased over the past three decades. The CDC says nearly everyone will get a form of HPV at some point in their lives, and about 14 million Americans, including teens, become infected each year. It is more common in men than women.


There are low-risk HPV types which have a low association with cancer, but these can lead to genital warts or oral papillomas.


And there are high-risk HPV types which can cause cell changes and pre-cancers. The most common high-risk HPV types include HPV 16 and 18. These contribute to chronic, or long-lasting infections that can convert to cancer over time.

So how does one acquire the HPV virus?


Oral HPV occurs when the virus enters the body, usually through a cut or small tear inside of the mouth. According to the CDC, these are the most common risk factors:

Oral sex. Evidence suggests that an increase in oral sexual activity may be a risk, with men being more at risk, especially if they smoke.

Multiple partners. Having multiple sexual partners may increase your risk. According to the Cleveland Clinic, having more than 20 sexual partners over your lifetime can increase your chances of getting an oral HPV infection by up to 20 percent.

• Smoking. Smoking has been shown to help promote HPV invasion. Inhaling hot smoke makes you more vulnerable to tears and cuts in the mouth, and is also a risk factor for developing oral cancers.

• Drinking alcohol. Research has indicated that a high intake of alcohol increases the risk for HPV infections in men. If you smoke and drink, you’re at an even higher risk.

• Open mouth kissing. Some research has said that open mouth kissing is a risk factor, as it can be transmitted from mouth to mouth, but more research is necessary to determine if this increases your risk for oral HPV.

• Being male. Men have a greater risk of receiving an oral HPV diagnosis than women.

• Age. It’s more common in older adults because it takes years to develop.


All these factors together can create the worst scenario for developing oral cancer. And this is how the actor Michael Douglas believes he developed his Stage 4 oral cancer back in 2010. You can read about him here.


In the past, it has been difficult to diagnose oral HPV, until a (cancer) lesion was actually present. But now there is a simple painless Saliva Test that can be done in your dentist’s office to see if HPV is present, and which types, if any. The prognosis is excellent if HPV is discovered early, before the cancer develops.


At your next dental visit, be sure to ask for this simple diagnostic screening test. With proper health care, most oral HPV infections will go away on their own without treatment. But you would need to know its presence before taking steps to eradicate it.

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