The STI human papillomavirus, or HPV, is incredibly common (often transmitted orally). So much so that musicians and actors regularly blame the disease for their head and neck cancers. They’re likely right. HPV does indeed lead to cancers in the long term. Which means a cancer epidemic may be lurking in the future for Millennials, men in particular, as their infection rates grow.
HPV is a problem for two reasons: One, it’s incredibly common, as 79 million Americans have it at best estimate. And two, there’s no way to test for HPV in men. The one upside is that there’s a vaccine, but it only works if you don’t already have HPV. As the vast majority of those infected don’t show symptoms, that means HPV can do its damage without being noticed and just melt away.
But, as NBC notes, that damage can pop up years later. If it shows up orally, it can cause damage that leads to head and neck cancers, such as oropharyngeal cancer (cancer of the base of the tongue and tonsils), which can quickly spread to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body. It also appears that oral infections of HPV in men, which can be transferred by both oral sex and kissing, are more aggressive and causing more cancers, up 61% between 2011 and 2015.
For now, at least, the incidence of cancers of the head and neck are fairly low overall, albeit fatal when not detected, and it’s worth remembering HPV is more dangerous for women. It causes the majority of cervical cancers. But, at the same time, people rarely think to check for head and neck cancers, and cervical cancers at least have the pap smear as a method of discovery. As Millennials, who are more open to oral sex (as they should be) than past generations, get older, head and neck cancers are likely to only become more visible.