As a Dental Hygienist, one of my roles is to carry out an examination of the soft tissues of the mouth (cheeks, tongue, floor of the mouth & palate) to look for signs of various conditions, one of which is mouth (oral) cancer.
November is Mouth Cancer Action Month and I wanted to comment on the rise of mouth cancer in younger people and the importance of having good oral health to help prevent some types of mouth cancer.
Mouth and throat cancer has historically been associated with smokers, heavy drinkers and people of a more mature age. It is one of the few cancer variations on the increase, and more recent figures show that the incidence of oral cancer is also rising in a much younger age group. In these younger patients there is often an association with the human papilloma virus (HPV).
The human papilloma virus (HPV) is one of the most common virus groups in the world today, affecting the skin and mucosal areas of the body. (These are parts of the body lined by a soft tissue known as mucosa, and include body cavities such as the mouth.) Over eighty types of HPV have been identified and different types of HPV are known to infect different parts of the body. Infection with the virus occurs when the skin and mucosal areas come into contact with a virus, allowing it to transfer between epithelial cells. (Epithelial cells are the surface cells of skin and mucosa.) Some forms of HPV are sexually transmitted and have been linked to certain types of oral cancer. This association hit the headlines in August this year with the news about the actor Michael Douglas and his health struggle with throat cancer, diagnosed in 2010.
A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that patients infected with HPV were 32 times more likely to develop oral or throat cancers, and research published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology indicated that HPV now accounts for more head & neck cancers than tobacco or alcohol.
Poor oral health is a now recognised to be an independent risk factor for oral HPV infection. The first study to examine this association was carried out by The School of Public Health at the University of Texas Health Sciences Centre in Houston. The virus can gain entry to the oral tissues via ulcers or where there is chronic inflammation in the mouth. By maintaining good oral hygiene and health, HPV infections and subsequently HPV related cancers, could be prevented. Other risk factors for oral HPV infections include smoking, marijuana use and oral sex habits.
As dental professionals, we are always encouraging and helping our patients to attain and maintain good oral health. We know that this has benefits for the health of the teeth and gums, benefits for general health and that this will also help prevent some forms of oral cancer.