Menu

Mind and Body

Proper mouth hygiene may prevent oral HPV infections, study finds

People may be able to avoid contracting oral HPV if they practice good mouth hygiene, according to a new study from Cancer Prevention Research.

Poor oral health has long been associated with an increased risk for oropharyngeal (head and neck) cancers, though it has never before been linked to increased rates of human papillomavirus infection, according to study authors Christine Markham and Thanh Cong Bui.

“Since we know that a large number of oropharyngeal cancers are caused by HPV we wanted to look at this missing link between poor oral health and HPV infections,” Markham, deputy director of the University of Texas Prevention Research Center, told FoxNews.com.

Suspecting that poor oral hygiene might make it easier for people to contract the HPV virus, Markham and Bui  gathered data on overall oral health and HPV infection rates from 3,439 participants involved in the 2009-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study participants were asked to rate their oral health on a scale from poor to excellent and were asked questions such as how often they had used mouth wash in the last seven days and whether they had ever had gum disease.

Overall, people who reported poor oral health or a history of gum disease had more than a 50 percent higher prevalence of oral HPV infection compared to those with good oral health.  Notably, the link between poor oral health and higher rates of HPV infection existed even when controlling for other known risk factors, such as having a high number of oral sex partners.

While more research needs to be conducted, researchers hypothesize that poor oral hygiene may make it easier for the HPV to penetrate a person’s body.

“Someone may be exposed to oral HPV, say through oral sex, but the virus still needs an entry way into the body. It needs to work its way into (the) epithelium,” Markham said. “If someone has poor oral health they may have ulcers, chronic inflammation of the gums, sores or lesions – things that create an entry portal for the virus to get in.”

As a result, Markham said it’s possible that maintaining good oral health could prevent HPV infection among people who come in contact with the virus.

“The key message is that good oral health… we know it’s important for overall health, but this is another reason it’s a good idea for people to take care of oral health,” Markham said. “Brushing, flossing, seeing a dentist may decrease overall risk for oral HPV infection.”