Poor oral health plays a role in cancer-causing oral human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.

Poor oral health plays a role in cancer-causing oral human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.

It is widely recognised that maintaining good oral hygiene leads to a mouth that looks and smells healthier. However, what many people do not realise is that in addition to aiding social situations, oral hygiene is also imperative in preventing serious oral health problems such as cancer.

A recent study published in Cancer Prevention Research, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research, has revealed an association between poor oral health and increased risk of oral human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Oral HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that shares similarities with genital HPV in that both infections comprise high and low-risk deviations. Unlike low-risk HPV, which may result in benign (non-cancerous) oral warts or tumours, high-risk HPV can progress into oropharyngeal cancers (throat cancer). The present study conducted by Thanh Cong Bui and associates, at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center, has illustrated that oral HPV is the source or 40% to 80% of these cancers. More importantly, this is the first study where poor oral hygiene has been established as an independent risk factor for oral HPV, regardless of additional influences such as oral sex practices or smoking.

Data obtained from the 2009-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), conducted by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was examined by study researchers with 3,439 participants aged 30-69 meeting the selection criteria. These criteria included data available on the absence or presence of 18 high-risk and 19 low-risk oral HPV strains and four evaluations of oral health; number of lost teeth, self-reporting of overall oral health, incidence of gum disease and whether mouthwash was used to treat dental ailments within the seven days prior to undertaking the survey. A number of data known to influence HPV infection was also analysed such as gender, age, marital status, smoking and oral sex practises to name a few.

Researchers established that those who identified themselves as having good to excellent oral health, had a 56 percent less likelihood of oral HPV infection than those who stated they had poor oral health. It was also recognised that participants with negative dental issues had a 28 percent higher probability of HPV infection than those with good oral health. Individuals with gum disease had a 51 percent higher probability of HPV infection. Furthermore, it was noted that HPV infection presented more commonly in males, smokers (both cigarettes and marijuana) and those that partook in regular oral sex with numerous partners.

Due to research being in its preliminary stages, little is known as to why poor oral health leads to an increase in oral HPV. However, it is proposed that the symptoms experienced by individuals suffering with poor oral health (e.g. oral lesions, abscesses or swollen gums) may act as the HPV infection’s entryway into the bloodstream. Individuals with good oral standing do not have these entryways and even when exposed to HPV they are less likely to generate an infection. Furthermore, sufferers of oral HPV infections will usually display no symptoms, and only a small proportion will develop into cancer. However, due to its lack of symptoms, HPV infection can often go unnoticed and untreated.

Additional research is needed to fully understand this causal relationship. However, what is well established is that when maintaining good oral health and hygiene, individuals can significantly reduce the probability of contracting HPV infection. In turn, this reduces the likelihood of HPC-related cancer as well as benefitting individuals overall health.

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Bui, Thanh Cong., et al., “Examining the association between oral health and oral HPV infection,” Cancer Prevention Research 6, no. 9 (2013): 1-8.

Cheeseman, Vicki. “What the ‘rinse-and-spit’ oral cancer test could mean for dental professionals and their patients,” Dentistry IQ, April 24, 2013,, (accessed June 24, 2014).

Oral DNA Labs, “Oral HPV: An overview of the infection and its role in the development of oral cancer,” April, 2011,, (accessed June 24, 2014).

Norton, Amy. “Poor oral hygiene tied to cancer-linker virus, study finds,” Health Day, August 21, 2013,, (accessed June 25, 2014).

Punyadeera, Chamindie. “Saliva test could detect early stages of PHV-linked oral cancer,” The University of Queensland, March 11, 2013,, (accessed June 23, 2014).

Whiteman, Honor. “HPC infection linked to poor oral health, say cancer prevention researchers,” Medical News Today, August 22, 2013,, (accessed June 20, 2014).

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