Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is the cause of a growing percentage of head and neck cancers (HNC); primarily, a subset of oral squamous cell carcinoma, oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma, and laryngeal squamous cell carcinoma. The majority of HPV-associated head and neck cancers (HPV + HNC) are caused by HPV16; additionally, co-factors such as smoking and immunosuppression contribute to the progression of HPV + HNC by interfering with tumor suppressor miRNA and impairing mediators of the immune system. This review summarizes current studies on HPV + HNC, ranging from potential modes of oral transmission of HPV (sexual, self-inoculation, vertical and horizontal transmissions), discrepancy in the distribution of HPV + HNC between anatomical sites in the head and neck region, and to studies showing that HPV vaccines have the potential to protect against oral HPV infection (especially against the HPV types included in the vaccines). The review concludes with a discussion of major challenges in the field and prospects for the future: challenges in diagnosing HPV + HNC at early stages of the disease, measures to reduce discrepancy in the prevalence of HPV + HNC cases between anatomical sites, and suggestions to assess whether fomites/breast milk can transmit HPV to the oral cavity.
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