Partners of Oral Cancer Patients Can Sigh

Throat cancer patient partners did not have more HPV oral infections

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) The human papillomavirus (HPV) is one nasty bug. It’s a sexually transmitted virus that’s linked to a variety of cancers, including cancer of the throat. Does this cancer diagnosis endanger patients' partners?

A recent study revealed some good news on this front. If one of the partners in a couple had HPV-related throat cancer, the other partner was not at greater risk of oral HPV infections.

This finding means that couples who’ve been together for several years don’t need to change their sexual behavior due to the cancer diagnosis.

One of this study's negative findings was that a small percentage of the women partners of oral cancer patients had a history of cervical or vaginal cancer.

"Get an HPV test."

Gypsyamber D‘Souza, PhD, MPH, MS, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, led the HOTSPOT (Human Oral Papillomavirus Transmission in Partners over Time) study.

This trial, which involved 230 individuals, is the first of its kind to look at oral HPV infection among patients with HPV-caused oropharyngeal (throat) cancer and their partners or spouses.

HPV infection is quite common in the US. The virus is linked to cervical, anal, vaginal, vulvar and penile cancers.

A growing trend, particularly among young white males, is HPV-related head and neck cancers that can develop anywhere in the mouth, nose or throat. These oral cancers have been on the rise for the last 10 years.

Dr. D’Souza puts this in perspective, noting that thousands of people in this country have HPV, but the vast majority do not get cancer.

More than 41,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer this year, with about three times more cases in men than in women.

This study measured whether partners of people with HPV-related throat cancer were at greater risk of developing oral HPV infections.

“These findings provide assurance that prevalence of oral HPV infection is not increased among partners and their risk of HPV-[oropharyngeal cancer] remains low,” said Dr. D‘Souza in a news release.

She went on to explain that couples who have been together for several years have already shared infections, so there’s no need to change ways they are intimate.

This study involved 147 individuals with HPV-oropharyngeal cancer and 83 spouses or partners. Most of the patients were men and most of the partners were women.

Participants provided oral rinse samples at the time they enrolled and another sample a year later. These samples were analyzed for 36 different types of HPV – including the cancer culprit, HPV16.

Here’s what they found:

  • About 7.2 percent of partners had oral HPV.
  • 5 percent of women had the virus, which is about what the general population has.
  • Only 2.7 percent of women had the cancer-related HPV16, which none of the male partners had.
  • Oral HPV was higher among the male partners – 29 percent compared to only 5 percent of the female partners.
  • No cancers or pre-cancers were detected in the partners who had a visual oral exam.

One troubling finding was that a small number (2.5 percent) of the female partners had had cervical cancer, and 4 percent of the patients reported a former spouse had developed cervical or vaginal cancer.

“HPV, the human papillomavirus, is responsible for thousands of cases of cancer of the oropharynx, cervix, and other sites every year. This study improves our understanding of HPV risk among the partners of patients with HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers,” said Gregory Masters, MD, a head and neck cancers expert.

This study was presented at the 2013 American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting. All research is considered preliminary before it is published in a peer-reviewed journal.

This research was supported by the Johns Hopkins Innovation Fund, Richard Gelb Cancer Prevention Award. Two of the authors disclosed receiving research funding from Merck.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 31, 2013
Last Updated:
August 8, 2013