Oncogenic human papillomavirus (HPV) is currently recognised as a major risk factor for the development of head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC). HPV is mostly detected in tumours arising from the oropharynx and more specifically from the tonsil. HPV-related tumours display clinical and molecular characteristics that are distinct from HPV-unrelated tumours, which are generally induced by alcohol and tobacco abuse. Detection of biologically active HPV in HNSCC has prognostic relevance, which warrants the separate classification of HPV-induced tumours and is a prerequisite for further optimisation of treatment protocols for this distinct group. Current guidelines for the treatment of oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC) have not incorporated specific treatment modalities for HPV-related tumours. The development of such treatment options is still in a preclinical phase or in early clinical trials. Recent data on treatment response of OPSCC have been obtained by retrospectively analysing HPV-status and indicate that patients with HPV-related tumours show a favourable prognosis, independent of the type of treatment. These patients may benefit from de-intensified treatment, which should be assessed in prospective clinical trials. The development and future use of new antiviral and immunomodulatory therapeutics may be instrumental in this approach to improve survival rates and decrease disease-and-treatment-related morbidity. In this review we will focus on present therapeutic HPV-targeting strategies and discuss future directions for de-intensified treatment of HPV-positive HNSCC. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.