A new study published in Cancer Prevention Research finds that poor dental health can not only lead to gum disease, but also oral human papillomavirus (HPV).

“Poor oral health is a new independent risk factor for oral HPV infection and, to our knowledge, this is the first study to examine this association," said Thanh Cong Bui, Dr.P.H., postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Public Health at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center. "The good news is, this risk factor is modifiable — by maintaining good oral hygiene and good oral health, one can prevent HPV infection and subsequent HPV-related cancers."

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a study that covered 100 percent of the U.S. population during 2004–2008 estimated that about 33,300 HPV-associated cancers are diagnosed each year.

The researchers used 3,493 participants ranging from ages 30 to 69 years old. They found that the participants who reported having poor oral health had a "56 percent higher prevalence of oral HPV infection, and those who had gum disease and dental problems had a 51 percent and 28 percent higher prevalence of oral HPV infection," the researchers wrote.

HPV is contracted through genital contact from vaginal or anal sex, but the virus can also be passed to another person during oral sex. In very rare cases, a pregnant woman can pass it to her child when giving birth. HPV can lead to genital warts, cervical cancer, and other less common cancers, such as cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, or anus.

However, in the case of oral HPV, recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP) — a rare condition in which warts can grow in the throat — can also develop in the back of the throat, tongue, and tonsils. The study also found that males, people who smoked cigarettes and marijuana, and those who engaged in frequent oral sex were at a higher risk for developing an HPV infection.

Oral HPV needs an unhealthy mouth to transmit the virus. Factors such as an oral cavity, ulcers mucosal disruption, or chronic inflammation may create an entry portal for HPV. “There is, however, currently not enough evidence to support this, and further research is needed to understand this relationship,” said Bui.

"Although more research is needed to confirm the causal relationship between oral health and oral HPV infection, people may want to maintain good oral health for a variety of health benefits," said Bui. "Oral hygiene is fundamental for oral health, so good oral hygiene practices should become a personal habit."

Along with preventing serious health complications, oral hygiene is important in maintaining a person’s entire health. Taking care of your teeth should begin at a very young age. Dental health professionals recommend brushing your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, using floss, and limiting sugary snacks and tobacco for a better smile and a healthier mouth.

Source: Bui TC. Poor Oral Health Linked To Cancer-Causing Oral HPV Infection. Cancer Prevention Research. 2013.