One in every 20 cancers is caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV).  Despite this, nearly half of Brits (47%) have not heard of HPV while almost two-thirds (63%) do not know how it is transmitted.

The findings have been revealed by the Oral Health Foundation, who are growing concerned by how little we know about HPV as a population.

Latest figures show that around 18,000 cancers were diagnosed as HPV related in the UK last year. These include cancer of the mouth, cervix, anus and penis.

Many health experts are pointing to HPV as the main reason why cases of mouth cancer have more than doubled inside the last generation.

Dave Cowan (52), from Glasgow, was diagnosed with tonsil cancer just months after his 50th birthday.  David’s cancer was linked to HPV, although he openly admits that he had no idea about the virus, or its link with cancer.

David says: “I don’t think I had heard of HPV until I was told that was the cause of my mouth cancer. I only started to read up on it after I had been diagnosed.

“There are hundreds of different types of HPV and around 80% of us have it. While certain types can lead to cancer, others can cause things like verrucas, which I’d rather have had to be honest.”

HPV types 16 and 18 are linked to around three quarters (73%) of oropharyngeal cancers. This is the part of the throat directly behind the mouth.  HPV is also linked to more than one-in-ten (12%) cancers in the tongue, tonsils and roof of the mouth.

HPV can be transmitted via oral sex and for most people, does not have any symptoms.  This means many sexually-active people can be infected with HPV and not realise it.  For a small number of people, HPV can lead to cancer.

The charity’s research, as part of November’s Mouth Cancer Action Month, also found nearly four in-five (79%) are unaware that oral sex can raise their risk of mouth cancer through the contraction of HPV.

Dr Nigel Carter OBE, Chief Executive of the Oral Health Foundation, highlights the importance of knowing more about HPV.

Dr Carter says: “The number of people diagnosed with HPV-related mouth cancers are growing at an alarming rate.  One of the biggest problems is that safe sex, or limiting the number of partners you have, does relatively little in the way of protecting yourself from HPV.

“The surest way to be protected from HPV is to have a vaccination.  So far, this has been offered to girls in year-8 from 2007 and boys since this September.  Everybody who remains unvaccinated should be aware of the risks posed by HPV.  Sexually-active people should be vigilant to any changes in their mouth so they can catch mouth cancer early if it does develop.”

Roy Templeton (58) from Inverness, was also diagnosed with tonsil cancer linked to HPV. Roy is keen to express the importance of acting on anything unusual in or around your mouth.

Roy says: “I was quite fortunate that I went to my GP early when I found something not right. If you have any inkling something is wrong I would urge you to get checked out.

“The most likely thing that's going to happen is they're going to look at it and tell you it's nothing to worry about. On the other hand, getting something checked out early could save your life.”

Mouth cancer can occur in a number of places in the mouth, neck and head. There are a number of common signs to lookout for.

Dr Catherine Rutland, Clinical Director at Simplyhealth, explains what you should be looking out for and the importance of dental visits for spotting mouth cancer early.

Dr Rutland says: “Mouth cancer can appear in the cheeks, gums, lips, tongue and tonsils.  It can also develop on the roof and floor of your mouth, as well as your head and neck. It is important to check these areas regularly and visit a dentist or doctor if you notice anything out of the ordinary.

“You should look out for mouth ulcers that do not heal within a few weeks, and any red or white patches in the mouth. Unusual lumps or swelling in the mouth, head and neck can also be a symptom, as can any hoarseness or unexplained ear ache.

“During every dental check-up, your dentist visually-examines you for signs of mouth cancer.  By keeping to regular visits, you are not only looking after your teeth and gums, you could potentially be taking steps that could save your life.”