Increase in head and neck cancer in younger patients due to human papillomavirus (HPV)

Oral Oncol. 2015 Aug;51(8):727-30. doi: 10.1016/j.oraloncology.2015.03.015. Epub 2015 Jun 9.


The face of head and neck cancer has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. There has been a steady decline in the number of tobacco and alcohol related squamous cell carcinomas over the past 30 years, but and increasing incidence of human papillomavirus (HPV) related cancers. Some estimates suggest that 70-90% of new oropharyngeal cancers have evidence of HPV. These patients have different demographic patterns, in that they are more likely to be younger, white adults in their 40s and 50s who are never smokers or have reduced tobacco exposure. Studies have shown that a higher number of lifetime oral sex partners (>5) and a higher number of lifetime vaginal sex partners (>25) have been associated with increased risk of HPV positive head and neck cancer. People can also reduce their risk of HPV linked head and neck cancer by receiving the HPV vaccine series prior to becoming sexually active. Recent evidence suggests HPV related head and neck cancers present with different symptoms than those caused by tobacco. The most popular test for HPV status is the p16 immunohistochemical stain because it is cheap, simple, and studies have shown it to have comparable sensitivity and specificity to the previous standards. It is widely recommended that all cancers of the oropharynx be tested for the presence of HPV, and some recommend it for all head and neck cancers. Overall 2-year and 5-year survival for HPV positive head and neck cancer is significantly greater than for HPV negative cancers, likely due to HPV positive cancers being more responsive to treatment.

Keywords: HPV; HPV vaccine; Head and neck cancer; Human papillomavirus; Oropharyngeal cancer; Squamous cell carcinoma.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / therapy
  • Human papillomavirus 16*
  • Humans
  • Papillomavirus Infections / diagnosis
  • Papillomavirus Infections / epidemiology*
  • Papillomavirus Infections / therapy
  • Risk Factors