April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month and as your oral health care provider, Dr. Christian joins the nation’s top dental associations and health organizations in this campaign to raise awareness of HPV, oral cancer screenings and the importance of early detection.
I am sure that you recall having your tongue examined during your hygiene visits (sorry to those of you who do not like the feel of cotton in your mouth). We call this the “Oral Cancer Exam.” Of course, we are looking for anything abnormal about the tongue, floor of the mouth, and other soft tissue structures.
One of the cancers that we are looking for is called “Human Papillomavirus” or simply “HPV,” which may be seen affecting the tonsils and the base of the tongue. HPV is considered to be a sexually transmitted disease (STD), or infection (STI), and is the most common STD. HPV is thought to cause 70% of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States.
Screening patients during routine exams for oral cancer has been our standard protocol for many years, and given the growing number of cases, we also take every opportunity to educate our patients. The statistics are startling and warrant a frank conversation about transmission, the dangers and the risks.
- HPV mouth cancer has surpassed cervical cancer as the most prevalent HPV cancer
- About 64,000 new cases of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers are diagnosed in the US each year
- 1 in 9 American men have oral HPV and cancers of the throat
- Oral HPV infection 4X more common in men than women
- Oral HPV infection more common with older age
Most HPV infections resolve without incident, but 31,000 cases are diagnosed each year that involve the genital areas, as well as the mouth and throat. Oral HPV is transmitted to the mouth by oral sex, or possibly in other ways. Many people are exposed to HPV and research has shown that 2.5% of adolescents have HPV. This seems like a big number, but remember that most HPV infections resolve without incident. Still, our kids are at risk!
What can we do about this?
Here are some risk factors for HPV (remember these factors do not cause HPV, but those that have these risk factors have a greater chance of being infected):
· Chewing tobacco
· Smoking more than a pack a day
· Use of marijuana
· Poor oral hygiene
Another good reason to not smoke and to brush and floss regularly!
Total sexual abstinence is, of course, the best prevention. But, be aware that vaginal penetration is not necessary for infection as the virus is spread by skin to skin contact and not fluids. Parents should make sure that their kids understand that other forms of sexual contact are still risky behaviors.
The HPV vaccine has been very effective. There has been a 71% reduction of HPV infections among teenage girls since the vaccine was first available in 2006. The vaccine can be given as early as nine years old in both boys and girls.
The vaccine seems to me to be quite safe. Keeping in mind that there can be unexpected reactions to anything that we add to our bodies, we need to analyze the benefit to risk ratio when we make decisions about our bodies (and our kids’ bodies).
I encourage parents to begin thinking about this vaccine for their kids well before age nine. Talk to your doctor, do your own research. Be aware of ”confirmation bias,” that tendency to seek out information that agrees with your pre-existing beliefs (as human beings, we are all susceptible this). Read research from both sides of the issue before you make your own informed decision.
Please talk to us about any questions or concerns that you may have; we don’t have to do this in front of your child. There is good reason to be diligent regarding HPV.
As always, the health of our patients and the greater community are top priority for us here at Keystone Dental Arts. Please don’t ever hesitate to ask us questions. Your concerns will always be treated in the strictest confidence with dignity and respect.