The human papillomavirus is a big cause of mouth and throat cancers, and those cancers have been getting more and more common.
So researchers asked: Could brushing and flossing make a difference?
It looks like the answer is yes, at least when it comes to being infected with oral HPV.
People with poor oral health are more likely to have an oral HPV infection, according to research from the the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston.
To find out, Thanh Cong Bui and his colleagues looked at data from a national health survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That survey included testing people for oral HPV and also asked how they'd rate their oral health.
People were also asked if they thought they had gum disease, and if they'd used mouthwash to treat an oral health problem in the last week. Dental hygienists conducted an oral health exam and noted if people were missing teeth.
Almost one-third of the 3,439 people said they had poor to fair oral health. They were about 50 percent more likely to have an oral HPV infection. The three specific indicators of oral health also were associated with HPV infection.
The results were published in the journal Cancer Prevention Research.
The scientists also looked at whether smoking cigarettes and having oral sex, two known risk factors for oral HPV infection, could be influencing the results. They found that people with poor oral hygiene were still more likely to have an HPV infection, even when they adjusted the data to account for smoking and frequency of oral sex.
"They're not a smoker; they're not having wild and crazy sex all over the place," says Christine Markham, an associate professor and a co-author on the study. "Even if they're not doing any of those things, not having good oral hygiene is still a risk factor for oral HPV."
[After this story was first posted, Markham told Shots that she felt her initial statement didn't fully reflect the survey data. Regardless of whether or not survey participants were engaging in these behaviors or had in the past, she said, their risk of oral HPV infection was increased if they reported poor to fair oral health compared with those who reported good to excellent oral health.]
This study didn't look at poor oral hygiene and cancer — only at the relationship between oral health and HPV. But it's not hard to make that leap and figure that this is yet another reason to stick with brushing and flossing.
"Exactly!" Markham tells Shots. "Good oral hygiene is good for your health in general, and it may reduce your risk of HPV infection."
About 7 percent of Americans have oral HPV infections, but some forms of the virus are more apt to cause cancer than others. The cancer is most common in men. It typically affects the tongue, the tonsils or the back of the throat. About 36,000 people are diagnosed with it each year, according to the American Cancer Society.