Cancers of the base of the tongue, the tonsils, the soft palate and the pharynx have increased by 60% in persons younger than age 45 years, and this jump is thought to be related to human papillomavirus (HPV) transmission and changes in sexual practices, say investigators.

The Surveillance Epidemiology End Results 9 database showed that 1,603 patients younger than age 45 years received a diagnosis of oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC) from 1973 to 2009, according to a research group led by Farzan Siddiqui, MD, PhD, of the Department of Radiation Oncology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. 

The team reported in Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery that during the years studied, the incidence of OPSCC cancer in patients aged 36 to 44 years (90% of the subjects) rose from 0.79 to 1.39 per 100,000, with the rate increasing in whites (73% of the subjects) by 113%, from 0.20 to 0.42, but falling in blacks by 52%, from 0.67 to 0.32. 

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“The growing incidence in oropharyngeal cancer has been largely attributed to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, which led to an increased transmission of high-risk HPV,” commented Siddiqui in a statement. “Not only were we surprised to find a substantial increase in young adults with cancer of the tonsils and base of tongue, but also a wide deviation among Caucasians and African Americans with this cancer.”

Siddiqui’s statement went on to explain that the predominance of oropharyngeal cancer in the age group studied likely suggests either nonsexual modes of HPV transfer at a younger age or a shortened latency period between infection and the development of cancer. 


  1. Gayar OH et al. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2014; doi:10.1177/0194599813519738.