About 70% of all throat cancers are caused by the same human papillomavirus (HPV) that’s responsible for cervical cancer. The incidence of HPV-associated throat cancer is on the rise, which is why our team at Global Dental Services offers one of today’s most advanced tests -- screening for HPV through your saliva.
The facts about HPV and throat cancer
Throat cancer, also called oropharyngeal cancer, develops when cells in the lining of your throat begin to grow rapidly and uncontrollably.
This type of dangerous growth occurs when cellular DNA is damaged and begins to mutate. The two most common causes of DNA changes leading to throat cancer are smoking and HPV.
HPV infections are the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the United States. In most cases, your body naturally clears away the virus, so you don’t develop any health problems, and you never know you had the virus.
When the virus manages to invade cells in your throat, it produces proteins that turn off the genes responsible for keeping cell growth in check. That’s when uncontrolled growth can develop into cancerous tumors.
Symptoms of throat cancer
At Global Dental Services, we check for visible signs of throat cancer every time you come in for a dental checkup. Although we can help detect the problem, we can only catch it at an early stage when you schedule routine exams.
HPV infections seldom cause symptoms, but if you begin to develop cellular changes, you may experience symptoms of throat cancer, such as:
- Hoarseness or other changes in your voice
- Persistent sore throat
- Difficulty swallowing
- Feeling like something is stuck in your throat
- Lump or sore that doesn’t heal (possibly in your neck)
- Constant cough
- Earache on one side
- Unintended weight loss
If you notice any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment so we can assess your throat and perform HPV testing, if necessary.
Getting tested for HPV through your saliva
Before the oral rinse test was developed, the only way to test for throat cancer was with a biopsy. Now that saliva testing is available, you have an easy and noninvasive alternative that reveals the presence of HPV without removing tissues for a biopsy.
The saliva test shows whether HPV is present, and more importantly, it reveals specific strains of HPV, so we can identify if you have those responsible for throat cancer.
The test is also sensitive enough to detect HPV in its early stages, which gives us the chance to remove the affected cells before they progress into full-blown cancer.
Getting tested for oral HPV is a simple procedure. First, we’ll ask you to gargle and swish with a saline (salt) solution, then you’ll spit it out into a funnel that directs the fluid into a collection tube.
We send the sample to a lab that tests your saliva and sends a report detailing the type of HPV strains detected.
Dr. Atli may perform a saliva test after finding visible signs of abnormal changes in your throat.
If your test comes back with positive results for high-risk HPV strains, the next step is a biopsy to verify whether or not cancerous changes have occurred.
You can also get a saliva test when you don’t have signs or symptoms if you believe you’ve been exposed to HPV. Based on the test results, the experts at the lab report your potential risk for developing precancerous or cancerous changes in the future.
It’s important to know that a saliva test that’s positive for HPV doesn’t mean you’ll get throat cancer down the road. Your test may show an infection now, but it may be fine when you’re tested again because your body needs time to clear away the virus.
Every positive HPV test is taken seriously. It gives us a heads up to keep a close watch on your throat until a follow-up test shows the HPV infection is gone. You may need to keep getting tested for several years, as it takes your body up to two years to clear an HPV infection.
If you experience throat symptoms lasting longer than two weeks, call Global Dental Services or book an appointment online.