There is considerable debate within the literature about the significance of human papilloma virus in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, and its potential influence on the prevention, diagnosis, grading, treatment and prognosis of these cancers. Cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption have traditionally been cited as the main risk factors for head and neck cancers. However, human papilloma virus, normally associated with cervical and other genital carcinomas, has emerged as a possible key aetiological factor in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, especially oropharyngeal cancers. These cancers pose a significant financial burden on health resources and are increasing in incidence. The recent introduction of vaccines targeted against human papilloma virus types 16 and 18, to prevent cervical cancer, has highlighted the need for ongoing research into the importance of human papilloma virus in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma.