TUESDAY, July 23 (HealthDay News) -- It's rare for men to
contract an oral HPV infection, but single men and smokers face a
relatively greater risk, a new study suggests.
The study, published online recently in
The Lancet,followed more than 1,600 men to chart rates of
oral infection with HPV, or human papillomavirus. HPV, which can
cause genital and anal warts, is the most commonly transmitted
sexual infection in the United States. Some strains of the virus
can eventually lead to cancer.
But it has not been fully clear how often HPV infects the mouth
and throat. The answer, at least in healthy men, is not very often,
based on the new findings.
However, being single or being a smoker were risk factors for
initial infection. Smokers had nearly three times the risk of a
cancer-linked HPV infection, versus nonsmokers. Singles were about
three to four times more likely to contract a cancer-linked
infection than men who were married or living with someone.
Overall, less than 2 percent of the study participants
contracted an HPV strain linked to an increased cancer risk in one
year. And for most men, the immune system cleared the virus within
The findings are "reassuring," partly because it's persistent
infections that present a cancer risk, said Dr. Edgar Simard, a
researcher with the American Cancer Society who was not involved in
Cervical cancer is the best-known HPV-linked cancer. But HPV
infections of the mouth and throat can promote oropharyngeal cancer
-- which affects the back of the throat, base of the tongue and
It's a rare cancer, but the number of cases tied to HPV is on
the rise in the United States. No one knows why, Simard said.
HPV-linked throat cancer recently came to the public's attention
when the British newspaper
The Guardianreported that actor Michael Douglas' recent bout
with the disease might have been caused by oral sex. Douglas is
also a longtime smoker.
To figure out how to prevent HPV-linked oropharyngeal cancer,
"we need to improve our understanding of the risks associated with
oral HPV infection and persistence," said researcher Christine
Pierce Campbell, a postdoctoral fellow at the Moffitt Cancer Center
in Tampa, Fla.
The reasons aren't clear, according to Pierce Campbell. But she
speculated that single men tend to have riskier sexual behaviors.
As for smoking, it's possible that inflammation in the oral cavity,
and a dampened immune system, make people more vulnerable to an HPV
"That's a plausible explanation," Simard agreed. "It makes sense biologically." He added, though, that smokers may also just happen to have different sexual practices than nonsmokers. "Is smoking a proxy for some risky sexual behavior?" he said.
Regardless, smoking is a bad idea -- so the fact that it's
linked to oral HPV infection is another strike against it,
according to Pierce Campbell. "If you smoke, quit. If you don't
smoke, don't start," she said.
But a big question this study doesn't answer, Simard said, is,
what are the risk factors for a persistent oral HPV infection?
"It's the persistent infections we're worried about," he said.
Since persistent oral HPV infections are thankfully rare, it
will take a large, long-term study to figure out why some people
continue to harbor the virus, according to Simard.
There are two vaccines against the most common cancer-linked HPV
strains. Experts recommend that all children ages 11 and 12 be
vaccinated, which involves a series of three shots. Older girls and
young women up to age 26 are advised to get "catch-up" shots if
they've never been vaccinated. The same advice goes for boys and
men ages 13 to 21.
The vaccines -- Merck's Gardasil and GlaxoSmithKline's Cervarix
-- are known to ward off genital and anal HPV infections. But
studies have not yet shown whether they prevent oral
But, Pierce Campbell said, "we have no reason to believe that
these vaccines will not be effective against oral HPV
Learn more about HPV and cancer from the
U.S. National Cancer Institute.
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