June 24, 2013

No Increased Risk of Oral HPV in Spouses of People with HPV-Positive Oropharyngeal Cancer


Spouses of people who are diagnosed with human papillomavirus (HPV)-related oropharyngeal cancer have a risk of oral HPV that is similar to that of the general population. These results were presented at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

Oropharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer. The oropharynx is the part of the throat that includes the soft palate, the base of the tongue, and the tonsils. Exposures that are known to increase the risk of oropharyngeal cancer include tobacco and alcohol use, as well as infection with high-risk types of HPV. HPV infections are very common in both men and women, but often go away on their own. When infections with high-risk types of HPV persist, they can cause cancers of the cervix, anus, penis, and oropharynx.

To assess the frequency of oral HPV infections in people with HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer and their spouses, researchers evaluated 147 people with cancer and 83 spouses. Oral HPV infection was assessed by testing for HPV DNA using an oral rinse.

  • In the people with HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer, the prevalence of oral HPV was 66% at the time of diagnosis.
  • Among the female spouses (who accounted for a majority of the spouses), the prevalence was 5%, which is similar to the prevalence in the general population.
  • In the case of HPV16—the subtype of HPV that is associated with a majority of cases of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer—oral infections were detected in 54% of the people with cancer, 2.7% of female spouses, and none of the male spouses.
  • None of the spouses had evidence of precancers or cancers detected during a visual oral exam.

These results should be reassuring to the long-term partners of people with HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer. As explained by the lead author of the study, “Couples who have been together for several years have likely already shared whatever infections they have and no changes in their physical intimacy are needed.”

Reference: D’Souza G, Gross ND, Pai SI et al. Oral HPV infection in HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer cases and their spouses. Presented at the 49th Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. May 31-June 4, 2013; Chicago, IL. Abstract CRA6031.


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