Learn more about what doctors are discovering about the link between HPV and cancer.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of more than a hundred related viruses. There’s research suggesting HPV may be a risk factor for many types of cancer, including basal and squamous cell skin cancer. HPV produces some papillomas, or warts, on hands and feet that aren’t related to cancer.
But it’s certain human papillomaviruses affecting anal and genital areas, and skin around fingernails, that appear to be associated with skin-related cancers.
Nearly 15 million people are newly infected with HPV each year in the United States.
HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact or contact with objects used by an infected person. While often associated with sexual contact, HPV can affect other areas of the body. Warts, including those that may appear on the face and neck, are also caused by human papillomavirus. Use of communal showers, having a weakened immune system, and occupations that involve the handling of meat are among the risk factors associated with non-genital warts. There are three types of warts that commonly affect skin:
Plantar warts: Flesh-colored, light brown bumps that usually appear on the soles of feet.
Genital warts: Pink, red, or flesh-colored bumps that develop in the genital area.
Flat warts: More common in women, these smooth, thinner warts typically appear on the face.
Treating HPV Infections
Warts are considered harmless. They usually go away with little or no medical intervention. In some situations, however, surgery may be recommended to remove unsightly or irritated warts. Some patients benefit from injections directly into the affected area to kill the virus. HPV treatment may also involve topical creams, salicylic acid (not recommended for use on facial warts), and freezing with liquid nitrogen (cryotherapy).
Studies Linking HPV to Cancer
The link between certain HPVs and skin cancer comes from various research studies, including one involving more than 1,500 patients with squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas, the two most common forms of skin cancer. Participants with antibodies for certain HPVs were found to be at a higher risk for developing skin cancer later in life, especially those who were long-time users of steroid medications. Prior studies have found similar connections with transplant patients on immune-suppressing therapy.
Predicting Skin Cancer
Doctors may eventually be able to use results from routine tests to identify patients likely to be at risk for skin cancer because of their history with HPV infections. For instance, a patient may visit an ear, nose, and throat doctor because of facial warts. The doctor could then order a blood test to determine if they have high-risk types of HPV linked to cancer. That patient could then be periodically monitored. There are also vaccines that can prevent infection from most human papillomaviruses associated with cancer.
When detected and treated early by an ear, nose, and throat doctor specializing in the types of cancer likely to affect visible areas of skin on the face and neck, most malignancies can be treated successfully. Because of the possible like to HPV, it’s important for patients to let their doctor know if they have a previous history of HPV infections, even if it was several years ago, since HPV antibodies can remain in the body long after an infection has cleared up.