WEDNESDAY, Aug. 21 (HealthDay News) -- People whose teeth and
gums are in poor condition may be more susceptible to an oral virus
that can cause certain mouth and throat cancers, a new study
Researchers found that of more than 3,400 U.S. adults, those who
rated their oral health as "poor" to "fair" were more likely to
have an oral infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), which, in
certain cases, can eventually lead to cancer.
Overall, 10 percent of people with tooth or gum disease tested
positive for oral HPV. That compared with 6.5 percent of those who
rated their dental health as "good" to "excellent."
The results, reported Aug. 21 in the journal
Cancer Prevention Research, do not actually prove that
diseased teeth and gums cause HPV infection.
"We don't know if poor oral health led to the HPV infection," said Christine Markham, one of the researchers on the study.
Her team tried to account for other factors that could affect
dental health or the odds of having HPV -- such as smoking or
multiple oral sex partners. And poor oral health was still linked
to a 56 percent increase in the risk of having oral HPV.
But there could be other explanations for the connection, and
more research is needed, said Markham, an associate professor at
the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.
Still, she said, there are already plenty of reasons to take
care of your teeth and gums. "Good oral health care is important
for your health in general," Markham said. This study just offers
some more incentive, she added.
HPV, which can cause genital and anal warts, is the most
commonly transmitted sexual infection in the United States.
Usually, the immune system clears the infection, but in some cases
the virus persists in the body. And persistent infection with
certain HPV strains can eventually lead to cancer -- with cervical
cancer the best known.
HPV can also invade the mouth during oral sex. Those infections
usually cause no symptoms, but a lingering infection with a
cancer-linked strain can lead to oropharyngeal cancer, which
affects the back of the throat, base of the tongue and tonsils.
It's a rare cancer, but cases tied to HPV are on the rise in the
United States. No one knows why.
It's already known that poor oral hygiene is tied to a
heightened risk of oropharyngeal cancer, even when smoking and
heavy drinking -- two big risk factors for the cancer -- are taken
But it has not been known whether dental health matters in the
risk of oral HPV infection, Markham noted.
This study, however, does not answer that question, according to
a specialist in head and neck cancers.
The study is hampered by some limitations, said Dr. Amy Chen, a
professor of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery at Emory
University in Atlanta.
The findings come from a large federal health survey that
included more than 10,500 Americans. But Markham's team had to
exclude two-thirds of them from the analysis because the
participants lacked key information -- such as an HPV test
Paring down the group like that is problematic because it can
bias the results, Chen said.
The "take-away," she said, is that people should be aware of the
already-known link between oral health and cancers of the mouth and
Anna Giuliano, of the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla.,
agreed that the study leaves questions -- including whether people
with poor oral health have a higher risk of a long-lasting HPV
infection, which is the real concern.
If unhealthy gums and teeth do raise the odds of oral HPV
infection, it's not certain how. But Markham said it's possible
that diseased gums offer an "entry portal" for the virus.
Fewer than 12,000 cases of oropharyngeal cancer occur among
Americans each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention. But it's thought that HPV causes nearly
three-quarters of them. So preventing the infection is key to
preventing the cancer.
There are two vaccines available against the most common
cancer-linked strains of HPV (Gardasil and Cervarix). Experts
advise vaccination for girls, boys and young adults.
Of course, that would not be of help to most of the people in
this study, the majority of whom were aged 30 or older, said Dr.
Dennis Kraus, director of the Center for Head and Neck Oncology at
North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute in Lake Success, N.Y.
Oral hygiene, on the other hand, is something we all can pay
attention to, Kraus noted. "Taking care of your teeth, taking care
of your gums -- it makes sense," he said.
To help keep your mouth healthy, the American Dental Association
recommends dental visits at regular intervals determined by your
Learn more about HPV and cancer from the
U.S. National Cancer Institute.
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