In the United States, it's estimated at least 15,000 Americans will be diagnosed with either laryngeal or hypopharyngeal cancer each year. Men are four to five times more likely to develop these types of cancers than women. Laryngeal cancer relates to the larynx, while hypopharyngeal refers to the bottom part of the throat.
Although there are individual factors that put both men and women at higher risk, one major cause they share is human papillomavirus (HPV).
A steady rise in cases
Medical experts believe HPV is responsible for more than 70 percent of all cases of oropharyngeal cancer, which affects the soft palate, base of tongue, tonsils and back of the throat.
People over the age of 55 are at the highest risk, but throat cancers can occur in people of all ages. According to the National Cancer Institute, the number of new HPV-related cancer cases is increasing each year, and oropharyngeal cancers are now the most common HPV-related cancer in the U.S.
Recognizing and preventing HPV-related cancers
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the U.S.—nearly all Americans are infected with HPV within a few years of becoming sexually active—and has more than 100 variants. However, doctors can vaccinate against the strains that most commonly cause cancer. Specifically, the HPV vaccine protects against HPV-related cervical, anal, vaginal, vulva, penile and oropharyngeal cancers. The vaccine also protects against most genital warts.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the HPV vaccine be given to everyone by ages 11 to 12; vaccination can begin at 9 years and older. It is also recommended for anyone up to the age of 26, although three shots rather than two may be required if you're older. Anyone 26 to 45 years old should talk with a doctor to confirm whether the vaccination would be beneficial.
In addition to vaccination, using condoms during intercourse and dental dams during oral sex have proved to reduce the risk of contracting HPV.
If you have contracted HPV, be on the lookout for indications of HPV-related throat cancer, including:
- Trouble breathing or speaking
- A lump or thickening in the throat
- Obstructive sleep apnea or snoring
- Trouble chewing or swallowing food
- A feeling that something is caught in the throat
- Pain in the throat that won't go away
- Pain or ringing in the ears, or trouble hearing
- Pain when swallowing
- Ear pain
Who's at risk?
If you're sexually active, a smoker or heavy drinker, and over the age of 55, you have the highest risk of HPV-related throat cancer.
If this sounds like it could be you, consider making an appointment with your doctor. An honest conversation about your lifestyle choices combined with complete physical and lab tests should help your doctor determine if you're at risk.
Making lifestyle changes specifically to help prevent throat cancer may also prevent other cancers, diabetes and heart disease.