Oral Health and HPV

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The importance of maintaining good oral health is an area of research that has been receiving increased attention in media reports for the past few years. For instance, recent studies have argued that there are reliable findings to suggest that poor oral health is related to everything from erectile dysfunction to dementia. Now, a study suggests that oral health can affect an individual’s risk for getting HPV.

The study, which was published in Cancer Prevention Research, analysed data from the 2009-2010 National Survey in the US. That survey included a total of 5000 participants, and measured a range of health indicators such as smoking habits and demographic information such as marital status and gender. Having gone through the information provided in the survey, the researchers were able to select a total of 3439 participants between the ages of 20 and 69 that would be suitable for their data analysis.

In their analysis, the researchers considered the participants’ own rating of their general oral health, whether they had any gum disease or had lost any teeth as well as whether the participant had used mouthwash in order to treat dental problems. In addition to that, the researchers adjusted their findings to age, gender, marital status, self-reported oral sex habits, and reports of smoking tobacco or marijuana. Given the broad scope of factors considered, it is not surprising that many valuable findings came out of this study.

The key findings indicated that individuals who stated they had poor oral health overall had 56 % higher prevalence of oral HPV. This was closely followed by individuals who had gum disease (51%) and individuals who reported they had dental problems (28%). The findings relating to gum disease are particularly interesting as they were further corroborated by findings suggesting that there was a direct relationship between the amount of teeth lost and the risk of oral HPV infections. Given that it is already known that gum disease can lead to tooth loss, the combination of these findings strongly suggest that there is a need to investigate this area,

When the researchers considered demographic data, they noted that the likelihood of an oral HPV infection was increased if a person was a male smoker of tobacco or marijuana and reported higher frequency of oral sex habits. However, overall oral health rating appeared to be a stronger indicator for the risk of oral HPV infection than smoking or oral sex habits. Clearly, this indicates that this area of the research may not have been as clear-cut as was once thought.

Based on the above findings, the researchers argued that it was possible that poor oral health created an opportunity for HPV infections. However, they also noted that their data alone was not sufficient to firmly support this conclusion.

There is much to be said about the current study. Its value comes from the fact that it has used a comprehensive sample, and from being the first study to support that oral health can affect the risk of oral HPV infections. In addition to that, the findings can raise optimism, as oral health is an area most individuals can improve and thereby lessen their risks of getting HPV. However, there are areas of the study that concern us a bit. As it was based on a survey, the researchers had to rely on self-reports, which can vary in terms of their reliability. This is especially the case when asking individuals about sensitive topics such as smoking marijuana and oral sex habits. Although we would usually say that these reports could be corroborated via medical records, it is also known that there currently is no approved test in the US for oral HPV infection.

Despite these limitations, we cannot say we were surprised to read about the current findings. It is important to note that in order to get HPV one person has to spread an infection, so poor oral health on its own will not lead to HPV. Nevertheless, keeping a healthy smile should be as essential as keeping a healthy heart.

Many countries now vaccinate against HPV and there was a recent report from Australia that corroborated the effectiveness of such vaccination programmes. You can read more about this report here.