The human papilloma virus (HPV) is a double-stranded DNA virus that infects the epithelial cells of skin and mucosa. The moist epithelial surfaces (squamous cells) include all areas covered by skin and/or mucosa such as the mouth interior, throat, tongue, tonsils, vagina, cervix, vulva, penis (the urethra – the opening), and anus. Transmission of the virus occurs when these areas come into contact with a virus, allowing it to transfer between epithelial cells. While it is established now that sexual contacts, both conventional and oral, are means of transferring the HPV virus through direct skin to skin contact, it is still poorly understood what other transfer pathways may exist. It is highly unlikely that the virus can live for long on inanimate objects outside of a cell.

The leading cause of oropharyngeal cancer is from HPV, a very small number of oral cavity cancers also occur from HPV. The HPV family contains almost 200 strains, and it is one of the most common viruses in the United States. It is important to understand that of all these, only nine are associated with cancers. Of the nine that are high risk, only one is strongly associated with oropharyngeal cancer, HPV16. A handful or more are associated with benign growths (warts) and the vast majority we have no evidence, other than they exist, that they harm us in any way.<