Squamous Papilloma: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Jun 19, 2024 | 6 min read

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Squamous papilloma is a benign growth caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), commonly appearing in the oral cavity. Early diagnosis and treatment, including surgical excision or alternative methods like laser ablation, ensure effective management and prevent complications.

squamous papilloma

What is Squamous Papilloma?

Squamous papilloma is a benign epithelial neoplasm, which means it is a non-cancerous growth originating from the epithelial tissue. It is characterized by well-circumscribed, papilliform, and cauliflower-shaped masses. These growths often appear as small, exophytic (outward-growing) lesions that can vary in color from white to pink.

Squamous papillomas are typically soft to the touch and may have a rough or warty surface. They are most commonly found in the oral cavity, but can also occur in other mucosal sites such as the esophagus, conjunctiva, and respiratory tract.

The benign nature of squamous papilloma means that it does not spread to other parts of the body and is generally considered harmless. However, its appearance can sometimes cause concern, especially when it occurs in visible areas like the mouth or throat. Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment are essential to manage these lesions effectively.

Causes and Risk Factors

HPV and Pathogenesis of Squamous Cell Papilloma

HPV plays a significant role in the pathogenesis of squamous cell papilloma. The virus is highly contagious and can be transmitted through direct contact with infected tissues or fluids. 

According to Immunize, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, with approximately 79 million Americans currently infected.

Once the virus enters the epithelial cells, it integrates its DNA into the host genome, leading to uncontrolled cell growth. This process results in the formation of squamous cell papilloma, characterized by fronds or finger-like projections originating from a central fibrovascular stalk.

HPV types 6, 11, 16, and 18 are particularly implicated in the development of squamous papillomas. Types 6 and 11 are most commonly associated with benign lesions like squamous papilloma, while types 16 and 18 are more often linked to malignant transformations. However, even benign lesions require careful monitoring and management to prevent potential complications.

Contributing Factors:

  • Chronic Irritation: Persistent irritation from factors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, or mechanical trauma can increase the risk of developing squamous papilloma.
  • Genetic Predisposition: Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition that makes them more susceptible to HPV infections and the subsequent development of papillomas.
  • Immunosuppression: Conditions that weaken the immune system, such as HIV infection or immunosuppressive therapies, can also increase the risk of HPV-related lesions.

Age and Demographics of Squamous Papilloma

DermNet states that squamous papilloma can affect individuals of all ages, but it is most commonly diagnosed in adults between the ages of 30 and 50. However, it can also be seen in children, particularly those with recurrent respiratory papillomatosis caused by HPV. There is no significant gender predilection for squamous papilloma, although some studies suggest a slight male predominance.

In terms of prevalence, squamous papilloma is relatively common, occurring in approximately one in every 250 individuals, as per NCBI. Oral squamous papillomas are particularly frequent, appearing on sites such as the tongue, gingiva, uvula, lips, and palate. These lesions are typically slow-growing and non-aggressive, but their appearance and potential for recurrence necessitate appropriate clinical attention.

Symptoms and Clinical Presentation

  • Esophagus: Squamous cell papillomas in the esophagus are often asymptomatic and discovered incidentally during endoscopic procedures. However, larger lesions can cause dysphagia (difficulty swallowing) and a sensation of food being stuck.
  • Conjunctiva: Conjunctival squamous papillomas appear as pink, fleshy masses on the eye's surface. They are usually painless but can cause irritation, foreign body sensation, and cosmetic concerns.
  • Respiratory Tract: These papillomas may cause respiratory symptoms such as chronic cough, hoarseness, and in severe cases, airway obstruction, especially if multiple lesions are present.
  • Oral Cavity:
  1. Tongue Papilloma: Often presents as a small, cauliflower-like growth on the tongue. It may cause mild irritation or a sensation of a foreign body in the mouth. Larger lesions can interfere with chewing and swallowing.
  2. Papilloma on the Gingiva or Palate: These lesions might be mistaken for warts or other benign growths. They are usually painless but can cause discomfort if they become large.
  3. Lip and Uvula: Papillomas in these areas can lead to difficulty in speaking or swallowing. They may also be prone to minor bleeding due to their location.

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Clinical Examination for Squamous Papilloma

  • Visual Inspection: Examine the lesion's appearance, noting its size, shape, color, and surface texture. Squamous papillomas usually appear as small, exophytic, and cauliflower-like growths.
  • Physical Examination: Palpate the lesion to assess its consistency. Benign squamous mucosa lesions are typically soft to the touch. Check for any associated tenderness or signs of inflammation.
  • Patient History: Gather a detailed history, including the duration of the lesion, any changes in size or symptoms, and potential risk factors such as smoking or HPV exposure.

Use of Diagnostic Tools

  • Histopathology: A biopsy is essential for a definitive diagnosis. The histopathological examination involves studying the tissue under a microscope to identify characteristic features such as fronds or finger-like projections covered by stratified squamous epithelium.
  • Biopsy: Perform an excisional or incisional biopsy depending on the lesion's size and location. The tissue sample is then sent for histopathological analysis to confirm the diagnosis.

Differential Diagnosis

  • Verrucous Carcinoma: A slow-growing, well-differentiated type of squamous cell carcinoma that can resemble squamous papilloma but with a higher potential for malignancy.
  • Condyloma Acuminatum: A wart-like lesion caused by HPV, typically found in the genital or anal regions but can also occur in the oral cavity.
  • Papillary Hyperplasia: A benign proliferation of the mucosa, often due to chronic irritation or ill-fitting dentures, which can mimic the appearance of squamous papilloma.
  • Focal Epithelial Hyperplasia: Also known as Heck's disease, this condition presents as multiple small papules in the oral cavity, often seen in children and adolescents.

Treatment and Management

  • Surgical Excision: Surgical excision is the most common and effective treatment for squamous papilloma. This procedure involves the complete removal of the lesion along with a small margin of surrounding healthy tissue to ensure that no remnants are left behind, reducing the risk of recurrence.
  • Laser Ablation: Laser therapy uses focused light beams to vaporize the papilloma. It is precise and minimizes damage to surrounding tissues. Laser ablation is often used for lesions in sensitive areas or when cosmetic outcomes are a concern.
  • Cryotherapy: This method involves freezing the papilloma with liquid nitrogen. The extreme cold destroys the abnormal cells, causing the lesion to fall off over time. Cryotherapy is quick and minimally invasive, with a relatively low risk of scarring.
  • Topical Treatments: Certain topical agents can be applied directly to the lesion to promote its regression. These treatments are less invasive but may require longer durations and repeated applications to achieve desired results.

Prevention and Public Health Implications

Importance of Vaccination:

  • HPV vaccines protect against the types of HPV most commonly associated with squamous papillomas, particularly types 6 and 11. By preventing HPV infection, the vaccine significantly reduces the risk of developing these benign lesions.
  • Vaccination also contributes to the prevention of more severe HPV-related conditions, such as cervical, anal, and oropharyngeal cancers.

Overview of Available Vaccines:

There are several HPV vaccines available, including bivalent, quadrivalent, and nonavalent vaccines. These vaccines protect against different combinations of HPV types.

  • Bivalent Vaccine: Targets HPV types 16 and 18, primarily associated with cancer prevention.
  • Quadrivalent Vaccine: Covers HPV types 6, 11, 16, and 18, protecting against both benign lesions like squamous papilloma and HPV-related cancers.
  • Nonavalent Vaccine: Provides broader protection against nine HPV types, including 6, 11, 16, 18, and additional high-risk types.

Vaccination Recommendations:

CDC recommendations for:


  • Children aged 11 to 12 should receive two doses of the HPV vaccine, spaced 6 to 12 months apart. The vaccine can be administered as early as age 9.
  • Children who start the HPV vaccine series at age 15 or older require three doses over a six-month period.
  • If your teenager hasn't been vaccinated yet, consult their doctor about getting them vaccinated as soon as possible.

Teens and Adults:

  • Individuals up to age 26 should receive the HPV vaccine if they haven't completed the vaccination series.
  • The HPV vaccine is generally not recommended for those older than 26.
  • Adults aged 27 to 45 who haven't been vaccinated might consider the HPV vaccine after discussing the risks of new HPV infections and the potential benefits with their doctor.
  • Vaccinating adults provides less benefit, as many people in this age group have likely already been exposed to HPV.

Frequently Asked Questions

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Key Takeaways

  • Squamous papilloma is a benign epithelial neoplasm caused primarily by HPV infection.
  • The HPV vaccine is highly effective in preventing HPV-related lesions, including squamous papillomas.
  • Surgical excision is the most common treatment for squamous papilloma, with low recurrence rates.
  • Alternative treatments include laser ablation and cryotherapy, which are less invasive options.
  • Early diagnosis through clinical examination and biopsy is crucial for effective management.
  • HPV vaccination is recommended for children starting at age 9 and up to age 26 for those not yet vaccinated.
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