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How the HPV vaccine can protect your oral health

Vaccinations aren’t just for measles and the flu. Getting a vaccination against human papillomavirus, or HPV, is just as important, because it can help prevent oral cancer.

What is the connection between HPV and oral cancer?

HPV contributes to oropharyngeal cancers, or cancers that appear in the head, neck and inside the mouth. This type of disease affects the base of the tongue, the tonsils and the walls of the pharynx, or the back of the throat. Left untreated, oral cancer can be fatal. While overall cancer rates in the U.S. are dropping, the numbers for oral and oropharyngeal cancers are increasing. This increase appears to be related to HPV, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Oncology. HPV is a risk factor for oral cancer.

How is oral cancer detected?

Your dentist or hygienist will look for signs of oral cancer as part of a regular dental exam. Some of the symptoms your dentist or hygienist will look for include:

  • Mouth pain that won’t go away
  • A sore that won’t heal
  • Numbness in your tongue or other areas of the mouth
  • A lump in the neck
  • Trouble swallowing

Be sure to tell your dentist or hygienist if you’ve noticed any of these issues, especially if they’ve persisted for longer than a week or two.

Is oral cancer the only risk with HPV?

There are other oral complications of HPV, most notably mouth sores. Raised, white bumps inside the mouth may be caused by HPV and should be examined by your dentist or doctor. You may also develop canker sores, which aren’t dangerous but can make eating difficult.

When should my child be vaccinated against HPV?

The Centers for Disease Control has found that HPV vaccination helps to prevent cancer-causing infections and precancers. For this reason, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends both boys and girls receive the vaccine between the ages of 9 and 26, ideally starting at 11 or 12. The vaccine is given in three doses.

If you or your children haven’t been vaccinated against HPV, ask your primary care physician about the vaccine.

Where can I find more information about HPV?

Details about HPV and its vaccine are available from several groups, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You can also ask your physician for more information.

Last updated February 11, 2022

The oral health information on this website is intended for educational purposes only. Always consult a licensed dentist or other qualified health care professional for any questions concerning your oral health.