Head and neck carcinomas have long been linked to alcohol and tobacco abuse; however, within the last two decades, the human papillomavirus (HPV) has emerged as a third etiology and is specifically associated with head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC). In this anatomical region, the oncogenic HPV-16 mediates transformation and immortalization of epithelium, most commonly in the oropharynx. Nevertheless, the recent identification of novel HPV mechanisms thought to be specific to oropharyngeal carcinogenesis has coincided with observations that HPV-associated HNSCC has differing clinical behavior—in terms of natural history, therapeutic response, and prognosis—than HPV-negative head and neck tumors. Taken together with the growing incidence of HPV transmission in younger populations, these discoveries have sparked a rapid expansion in both laboratory and clinical studies on the infection and disease. Herein, we review the clinical characteristics of HPV-associated HNSCC, with particular emphasis on recent advancements in our understanding of the management of this infectious malignancy.
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