One in 50 people carry a strain of human papillomavirus (HPV) in their throat, according to research.
Scientists from University of Sheffield said HPV infection is usually associated with cervical cancer, but there is less recognition of the fact that it causes oropharyngeal (throat) cancer.
Smoking and sexual behaviour are risk factors for oral HPV infection, which can lead to this type of cancer and is becoming more common worldwide.
A study of 700 men and women in Sheffield, which is the largest of its kind in England, looked for high risk HPV (HR-HPV) infection and also asked participants lifestyle questions relating to their sexual history and tobacco use.
One in 50 (2.2%) people were infected with oral HR-HPV infection with 0.7% positive for HPV16 or HPV18.
Despite this, overall infection rates were lower than expected when compared to previous studies.
Separate pieces of research in Scotland and the United States had both found 3.7% of individuals tested positive for oral HR-HPV.
Former smokers were significantly more likely to be HR-HPV positive compared with those that had never smoked. The study also found that participants with a greater number of sexual or oral sexual partners were more likely to be HR-HPV positive.
Researchers said the majority of individuals testing positive for high risk strains of HPV were also positive for strains other than those covered by the current vaccine (HPV 16 and HPV 18).
They welcomed the introduction of offering the HPV vaccination to boys as well as girls, but said their findings show more protection is needed against other high risk strains.
Dr Vanessa Hearnden, from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Sheffield, said: “Previous studies have been US-focused or in smaller UK studies in London or Scotland. This is the first study in the North of England and found lower rates of oral high-risk human papillomavirus infection.
“We fully support the newly announced HPV vaccination programme for boys which will reduce the risk of HPV related cancers including throat cancer in men and will also provide further prevention of cervical cancers through herd immunity.
“However, we found the majority of individuals testing positive for high risk strains of HPV were actually positive for strains other than those covered by the current vaccine (HPV 16 and HPV 18).
“This shows the need to consider newer vaccines which protect against more HPV strains in the future and for individuals to be aware of lifestyle risk factors such as number of sexual partners and tobacco use.”