When you come in for a regularly scheduled dental appointment, what do you talk with your dentist about? The weather, perhaps? The upcoming Eagles game and whether the Vikings have another shocker in them? No matter what your answer is, chances are it’s not “your sex life.” But thanks to a veritable epidemic of oropharyngeal cancers as a result of the sexually transmitted disease HPV, some people are encouraging dentists to put the taboo topic on the table.
The Link Between HPV and Throat Cancer
Oropharyngeal cancer is a form of cancer that affects the tissues of the middle portion of the throat: The base of the tongue, the tonsils, the soft palate, and the walls of the pharynx. While some oropharyngeal cancers can be attributed to alcohol and tobacco use, statistics from the Centers for Disease Control indicate that a staggering 70% of cases are caused by HPV, the world’s most common sexually transmitted infection. The stigma around sexually transmitted diseases may make some people feel embarrassed or alone if diagnosed with one, but they’re extremely common. In fact, HPV affects nearly half of American adults.
Unfortunately, the types of oral cancer that are tied to HPV can be unusually difficult to spot, since they develop relatively far back in the throat. Plus, symptoms can be subtle and painless, making it hard for both the patient and their doctor to know to look for a problem. You may be asking yourself, what does all this have to do with dentists? You may not realize it, but every time you go in for a regular dental cleaning and check-up, your dentist is also performing an oral cancer screening. To do so, dentists and hygienists know to look at the back of the mouth and underneath the tongue for red flags like an oral sore that won’t heal, or white or red patches on the gums, cheeks, or tongue.
This means that dentists and hygienists are better equipped than anyone to look for symptoms of the oropharyngeal cancers associated with HPV. This has led to the American Dental Association urging dentists to take a more active role in their diagnosis and prevention.
You Don’t Have to Tell Your Dentist Your Secrets
Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to tell your dentist about your sex life — and it’s highly unlikely that they will ask. But it does mean that getting regular dental exams isn’t just important for preserving your oral health, but could also allow you to catch oropharyngeal cancer early enough to treat it more effectively.
And if you are diagnosed with HPV, it may be worth letting your dentist know so they can keep an eye out for those hard-to-spot symptoms. Your dentist isn’t here to judge you, but to protect your oral and overall health.