Living Well

How to Prevent Head and Neck Cancers

Last updated: May 15, 2017

Head and neck cancers, which typically begin in the moist surfaces that line the mouth, nose, and throat, are rare. In fact, this group of cancers that causes telltale symptoms, such as a lump or sore that does not heal, difficulty swallowing, or voice changes, only account for 7 percent of all cancers in the United States.

With increased awareness, Michael Most, MD, a head and neck surgeon at the Summit Medical Group MD Anderson Cancer Center, says many of these cases can be prevented. Here are three ways to protect you — and your children. 

1) Get the HPV Vaccine

  • The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus that is linked to mouth and throat cancers, as well as other kinds of gynecological and urological cancers.
  • HPV is spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact. Nearly one in four people nationwide are currently infected with HPV.  
  • Many people with HPV never develop symptoms, while others develop certain cancers and diseases.  
  • Gardasil is a vaccine that protects against nine different forms of HPV that can cause cancer. Children should get the first dose at 11 or 12 years old. Anyone up to 26 years old can be vaccinated.
  • For the HPV vaccine to be most effective, the series should be given prior to sexual activity and exposure to HPV.

“Most people do not know that HPV also causes oral cancers. If every kid between the ages of 11 and 12 was vaccinated, we would expect to see a reduction in head and neck cancers in the future,” says Dr. Most.  

2) Quit Smoking and Heavy Drinking

  • Research shows that people who smoke or are exposed to tobacco are more likely to have a strain of HPV known as type 16. This strain causes more than 90 percent of all HPV-related throat cancers.
  • The Gardasil vaccine protects against HPV type 16. 
  • A study found that women who drink alcohol were nearly three times more likely to test positive for HPV than those who did not drink. Risk also increased with the amount of consumption. Women who have been drinking for a prolonged period of time — five or more years — were also more likely to have lingering HPV infection known as persistent HPV that causes most cases of cervical cancer.  

3) Practice Good Dental Hygiene

  • Studies show that poor oral health, such as gum disease, sores, and lesions, are a risk factor for developing HPV infection. 

References

  1. Interview with Michael Most, MD, head and neck surgeon at Summit Medical Group MD Anderson. (3/10/16).
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccine Safety. Web 23 January 2017.
  3.  Carole Fakhry, MD, MPH1; Maura L. Gillison, MD, PhD2; Gypsyamber D’Souza, PhD, MS, MPH. Tobacco Use and Oral HPV-16 Infection. Journal of the American Medical Association. 8 October 2014. 2014 Oct 8;312(14):1465-7.
  4. Oh HY, Kim MK. Alcohol consumption and persistent infection of high-risk human papillomavirus. Epidemiology & Infection. 2015 May;143(7):1442-50.
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