A prospective study was undertaken to determine the prevalence and histological correlates of human papillomavirus infection in the head and neck epithelium. Oral, pharyngeal, and laryngeal paraffin-embedded samples were analyzed by polymerase chain reaction with use of human papillomavirus E6 consensus sequence primers. Human papillomavirus infection was detected in 20 of 126 (15.9%) patients. Twenty-five of 230 (10.9%) samples contained human papillomavirus DNA. Papillomaviruses were detected in 15 of 131 (11.4%) head and neck squamous cell carcinomas, in 3 of 32 (9.4%) dysplasias, and 2 of 19 (10.5%) keratoses. The most commonly identified human papillomavirus in cancerous, precancerous, and keratotic lesions was type 16 (80.0% of the isolates). Five papillomas were shown to contain human papillomavirus type 6. No other lesion in 42 samples contained human papillomavirus. Our data are consistent with the hypothesis that infection with certain types of human papillomavirus contributes to head and neck cancer although this may be so only in a minority of cases. Human papillomavirus infection may play a role in the earliest stages of tumorigenesis, since papillomaviruses can be found in laryngeal premalignant and keratotic lesions, which are closely linked to tobacco use.