By: Jennifer Shu, MD, FAAP
Yes. Many people associate human papillomavirus (HPV) with cervical cancer. And it's true that almost all cervical cancer is caused by HPV. But HPV also causes vaginal, vulvar, cervical, penile and anal precancers and cancers, and mouth and throat cancers. The virus also causes most types of genital warts.
HPV vaccine: powerful protection
The HPV vaccine has been recommended for girls since 2006 and for boys since 2011. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends the vaccine for boys and girls
starting at age 9. The HPV vaccine protects people from:
over 90% of
cancers caused by the virus,
pre-cancers (abnormal cells that lead to cancer),
almost all cases of cervical cancer and
nearly 100% of cases of genital warts.
The HPV vaccine also prevents a high percentage of other HPV-related cancers. For example, the virus causes oral cancer—in the back of the throat, base of the tongue and tonsils.
About 70% of
are caused by HPV in the U.S. The virus spreads to the mouth by oral sex, and possibly can spread in other ways. The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that can cause oral cancers.
When do oral HPV symptoms develop?
About 10% of men and 3.6% of women are infected with
oral HPV. Most people who get infected with oral HPV do not have symptoms and the virus goes away within a year or two.
After a person is infected with the HPV virus, it can take years for oral cancer to develop.
Symptoms of oral cancer include a long-lasting sore throat, earaches, hoarseness, swollen lymph nodes, pain when swallowing and unexplained weight loss. Or, you may have no symptoms.
Unlike cervical cancer, there is no test to screen for oral cancer or any other HPV-associated cancer. HPV-associated oral cancer rates are higher than HPV-associated cervical
cancer rates. More than 8 out of 10 cases of oral cancer linked to HPV are in men.
I survived tonsil cancer: Here’s why this dad of 3 wants every kid to get the HPV vaccine
By Jason Mendelsohn
When I was diagnosed with HPV-related tonsil cancer, I was shocked and worried. I felt perfectly healthy and had no symptoms, just a small bump on my neck that appeared out of nowhere. I had recently lost a bunch of weight as well. When I received the diagnosis, I was truly amazed, as I had never heard of HPV related tonsil cancer and had never known anyone to be diagnosed with it. In fact, I knew very little about HPV.
Shortly after receiving my diagnosis, I learned that I would need a radical tonsillectomy, neck dissection (42 lymph nodes removed from my neck), followed by seven weeks of chemo, radiation and a feeding tube. Just after starting treatment, I was so unsure as to if I would survive that I made videos to my kids saying goodbye. My videos went something like this, "One day you are going to get married, I'm not going to be there, this is what's important." Weeks later, several friends and family began referring to me as Superman, and even brought me Superman t-shirts and figures, stating I was tough like Superman.
A few years after beating cancer, I decided to launch www.SupermanHPV.com to provide inspiration and information for those diagnosed and/or researching HPV, the HPV vaccine, and HPV related cancers. My hope was to draw attention to a diagnosis I had never heard of—and protect hundreds of thousands of boys and girls from HPV preventable cancers.
I have told my story on Capitol Hill at a congressional briefing to increase HPV vaccination rates and end HPV-related cancers. I share my story often so that parents and grandparents understand that they have the ability—and in my opinion the responsibility—to protect their kids and grandkids from HPV preventable cancers. I explain how common HPV infection is for college freshmen and young adults, and how many men are diagnosed each year.
I always share that HPV is the most common cause of cervical cancer for women, too. And in the past few years, HPV mouth and throat cancers have surpassed cervical cancer. It has become an epidemic among men, although it impacts women as well.
When I tell my story, I also explain that my doctors believe that I was exposed to HPV while in college, and that the virus lay dormant in my throat for decades before surfacing as cancer.
As parents, our No. 1 job is to protect our children. I want to protect the planet from HPV preventable cancers. I made it my goal to have my cancer story shared in as many languages as possible on all seven continents, to save lives worldwide.
Jason Mendelsohn and his wife, Ronni, have twins (son and daughter; age 21) and a 15-year-old son. He shares his story and invites survivors to share their stories on his website, SupermanHPV. Mr. Mendelsohn has been an invited speaker at several medical conferences and is a patient advocate member of the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance executive board.
The AAP recommends the HPV vaccine starting at age 9. Getting the vaccine at this age protects your preteen well before they are exposed to the virus.
Preteens get two doses and teens 15 and older get three doses because preteens make more antibodies after they get the HPV vaccine than older teens or young adults. Three doses also are recommended for preteens and teens age 9 years and older who have certain immunocompromising conditions.
Older teens can still get the HPV vaccine
If your teen or young adult is 15 years or older and has not started or finished their series of HPV vaccine shots, it's not too late. Just like most vaccines they got as a baby, your teen needs all recommended doses to build their immunity and prevent infection.
Protecting your preteen or teen now gives them the best shot at preventing cancer in the future. Make an appointment with your pediatrician as soon as possible and protect them from HPV-related cancer.
About Dr. Shu
Jennifer Shu, MD, FAAP, serves as the medical editor of HealthyChildren.org and provides oversight and direction for the site in conjunction with the staff editor. A practicing pediatrician at Children's Medical Group in Atlanta, Ga., she is also a mom.