Viruses are interesting bugs. Just because you catch one doesn’t mean it will make you sick. That said, being infected with a virus many times can lead to health issues. And for one virus, that issue could be cancer.
Single guys and smokers are at greater risk from a cancer-causing virus called human papillomavirus (HPV) that can lead to throat cancer, according to a new study.
Michael Douglas was treated for this kind of cancer, technically called oropharyngeal cancer which shows up in the tonsils and the back of the tongue.
While still rare, the number of throat cancers caused by the HPV virus is increasing.
Christine M. Pierce Campbell, PhD, MPH, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Infection Research in Cancer at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, was the lead investigator of the HPV Infection in Men (HIM) study.
Dr. Campbell worked with researchers in Mexico and Brazil, along with scientists at the National Cancer Institute.
There are dozens of different types of HPV. The virus, which is more likely to be sexually transmitted, can lead to cervical, anal, penile, vaginal, vulvar and oral cancer.
HPV16 is one of the specific virus types linked to cancer. More than 41,000 Americans will be diagnosed with throat and oral cancers, which are three times more common in men than women.
The aim of this study was to explore patterns of oral HPV infections and how long these infections last.
Researchers examined oral mouthwash samples from 1,626 men between the ages of 18 and 73. The men were followed for just over a year, during which time 4.4 percent of the participants developed oral HPV infections.
Cancer-causing (oncogenic) HPV infections, found in 1.7 percent of the men, were most common in men who smoked and who were not married or living with a partner.
The infections lasted on average between 6.3 to 7.3 months.
Anna R. Giuliano, PhD, director of Moffitt’s Center for Infection Research in Cancer, said in a prepared statement, “HPV16 is associated with the rapid increase in incidence of oropharyngeal cancer, most noticeably in the United States, Sweden and Australia, where it is responsible for more than 50 percent of cases. Unfortunately, there are no proven methods to prevent or detect these cancers at an early stage.”
Persistent infection with HPV16 may be linked to the development of throat cancer, just as persistent cervical HPV infection leads to cervical cancer, the researchers noted.
The researchers found that oral HPV infections usually clear up within in a year.
“To inform prevention efforts for HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers, further investigation of the natural history of oral HPV infection is needed, with factors associated with oral HPV persistence and clearance as the focus,” the authors wrote.
This study was published in the July issue of The Lancet.
Grants from the National Cancer Institute and National Cancer Institute Intramural Research Program funded the research.
Dr. Giuliano receives research funding from Merck and GlaxoSmithKline. She and Dr. Villa are consultants to Merck Sharp & Dohme for human papillomavirus vaccines. No other conflicts of interest were reported.