There are about 100 known strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), and each is distinct from the others. Some strains lead to common skin warts that grow on your hands, feet, and other exposed areas. These warty growths can be tough to get rid of but are not the type that leads to cancer.
Other HPV strains can cause cellular changes that could lead to cervical, anal, or penile cancer. These are identified as sexually transmitted HPVs and include strains of the virus transmitted via oral sex, which can lead to cancer of the back of the mouth and throat (oropharynx).
The healthcare providers at Crossroads Family Medicine use saliva testing to help determine your HPV status as it relates to your oral health. If necessary, they can then create a strategy designed to monitor for early signs of cancer. Like many other cancers, oropharyngeal cancer has a very high cure rate when it’s detected early.
Read what else the medical experts at Crossroads have to say about sexually transmitted HPV and the benefits of saliva testing.
The basics of sexually transmitted HPVs
An HPV infection doesn’t always lead to cancer. Most, in fact, don’t. But HPV is the most common STD in the United States, and about 14 million new infections are diagnosed each year. If you’re sexually active, this high infection rate greatly increases your odds of being exposed to the virus.
There is no cure for HPV, although there are vaccines available to help protect you against some sexually transmitted strains. For the vaccine to be effective, however, you must receive it before you become sexually active or turn 26. After age 26, women are best served to ward off cervical cancer by getting routine screenings for the disease, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Unlike the strains that produce common warts on exposed areas of your skin, sexually transmitted HPVs flourish in the genital area and the moist membranes lining your mouth and throat. These HPV strains are transferred from one partner to the other via skin-to-skin contact, which means condoms don’t offer reliable protection since the virus may be present on an area not covered by the condom.
HPV is transmitted through sexual activity are further categorized into high-risk and low-risk types. Low-risk HPVs include such strains as 6 and 11, which may cause persistent genital warts but won’t lead to cancer.
High-risk sexually transmitted HPVs are those that are known to cause cancer. HPV is the primary cause of cervical cancer. About 70 percent of all oropharyngeal cancers are linked to HPV, and half of those are related to HPV type 16.
The benefits of saliva testing for HPV
Saliva testing for HPV is a simple, painless test that can help determine whether HPV is affecting your oral mucosa or throat.
It doesn’t tell us whether you have cancer, but a positive test does alert us that you’re at a higher risk for developing oropharyngeal cancer. Our goal then is to monitor your mouth and throat closely for abnormal cell growth that may indicate precancerous or cancerous changes, which typically respond very well to prompt treatment.
This means you can expect a thorough mouth exam when you come in for a visit. Because they’re focused on your oral health, it’s helpful to let your dentist know as well that you’ve had a positive test.
We’ll also instruct you regarding self-exams and the symptoms to watch for, including:
- A mouth ulcer or sore that doesn’t heal within 2-3 weeks
- Patches of red, white, or black discoloration affecting the soft tissues in the mouth
- Pain with swallowing or a sensation that things are sticking in your throat when you swallow
- Persistent sore throat or hoarse voice
- Ear pain that may occur on one side
- Enlarged lymph nodes in your neck
How can I prevent an oral HPV infection?
Limiting your sexual partners, refraining from oral sex, and knowing your partner’s sexual history may help. However, HPV infections can remain dormant for years before causing symptoms.
It’s very important to remember that having HPV does not mean you’ll develop cancer. Your immune system manages most HPV infections, typically fade after 1-2 years, and may never cause a single symptom.
Maintaining your overall health with an appropriate diet, regular physical activity, and other healthy choices can help keep your immune system functioning at its best and improve your body’s ability to overcome an HPV infection.
Make your appointment today regarding saliva testing for HPV at Crossroads Family Medicine.