How do I get screened for oral HPV?

Throat examination
Throat examination. :webphotographeer/E+/Getty Images

HPV infection has been associated with an increased risk of a number of cancers, including cervical cancer, penile cancer, and anal cancer. It has also been linked to a growing number of oral and throat cancers, where people were presumably exposed to the virus through oral sex. The good news about these HPV-related throat cancers is that they're generally more treatable than throat cancers not associated with the viral infection.

The bad news is that they still need to be identified before they can be treated.

Although oral HPV screening is not yet a standard part of medical or dental examination, there is a growing interest in using non-invasive techniques to detect infection. Studies have shown that it is possible to detect oral HPV infection through collected saliva or in oral swabs. Unfortunately, that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea or useful for early cancer detection.  HPV testing in the oral cavity is potentially problematic for the same reasons that doctors are often concerned about doing too much cervical HPV testing. Most HPV infections will clear on their own, and so a positive test result does not mean that you will have any future problems. That's why visual inspection of the oral cavity by a dentist is currently considered to be far more useful than HPV testing for cancer diagnosis. However, once an oral cancer has been diagnosed, it may be tested for the presence of HPV DNA in order to get a clearer idea of the cancer's prognosis.

Diagnosing Oral Cancer

Regular dental visits are the first line of defense against oral cancer. It's important to tell your dentist if you have any signs or symptoms of oral cancer, which include:

  • persistent sore throat
  • trouble swallowing
  • hoarseness
  • pain in the ears
  • enlarged lymph nodes

Awareness of these symptoms may prompt your dentist to do a more in depth examination of your oral cavity.

You should also let the doctor know about any risk factors, including tobacco use, alcohol consumptions, and oral sex.

Can HPV Vaccination Help Prevent Oral Cancer?

If you are a young person, or someone who has not had a large number of sexual experiences, you may want to discuss the possibility of HPV vaccination with your doctor. Vaccination with one of the three current HPV vaccines - Gardasil, Gardasil-9, and Cervarix - has the potential to significantly decrease your risk of developing an HPV-related cancer. Although there is not yet any clear data showing that vaccination can reduce the risk of oral cancer, a significant percentage of oral cancers are caused by one of the high-risk HPV types that are preventable by vaccine.


ADA Council on Scientific Affairs. Statement on Human Papillomavirus and Squamous Cell Cancers of the Oropharynx. Accessed 5/11/15 at

El-Mofty SK. Histopathologic risk factors in oral and oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma variants: an update with special reference to HPV-related carcinomas. Med Oral Patol Oral Cir Bucal. 2014 Jul 1;19(4):e377-85.

Pringle GA. The role of human papillomavirus in oral disease. Dent Clin North Am. 2014 Apr;58(2):385-99.

Saraiya M, Unger ER, Thompson TD, Lynch CF, Hernandez BY, Lyu CW, Steinau M, Watson M, Wilkinson EJ, Hopenhayn C, Copeland G, Cozen W, Peters ES, Huang Y, Saber MS, Altekruse S, Goodman MT; HPV Typing of Cancers Workgroup. US Assessment of HPV Types in Cancers: Implications for Current and 9-Valent HPV Vaccines. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2015 Apr 29;107(6). pii: djv086.

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