HPV and Oral Sex
Research shows a link between HPV, oral sex, and some oral cancers. You can protect yourself by getting vaccinated and making good lifestyle choices.
By Beth W. Orenstein
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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Most cancers of the head and neck are caused by heavy drinking and smoking. However, recent research has shown that as many as 25 percent of mouth cancers and 35 percent of throat cancers may be linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Each year in the United States, more than 1,700 women are diagnosed with new cases of HPV-associated cancers of the oral cavity and throat. For men, the numbers are even higher — 5,700 new cases annually.
The number of these oropharyngeal cancers is on the rise. Researchers now suspect a link between oropharyngeal cancers and young people having oral sex with multiple partners, which is also on the rise.
The good news, says Vanessa Cullins, MD, MPH, a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist and vice president for medical affairs at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, is that “oral cancers associated with HPV are more treatable than those caused by other factors, such as smoking and drinking. So when it comes to cancers of the mouth and throat, smoking and drinking are much more dangerous than oral sex.”
HPV transmission can be quite simple: Skin-to-skin contact can transfer the virus. There are more than 120 types or versions of HPV. New studies show that HPV 16, one of the two types of genital-tract HPV known to cause the vast majority of cervical cancers, is also linked to oral cancer. In the mouth and throat, HPV16 manifests itself primarily at the base of the tongue, the back of the throat, the tonsils, and the tonsillar pillars. (As research continues, other versions of the virus might be implicated as well).
How to Protect Yourself From HPV-Related Oral Cancers
You can take steps to protect yourself and your partner from HPV transmission and from HPV-related oral cancers:
- Get vaccinated.“Vaccination works best if it is given to young people before they become sexually active,” Dr. Cullins says. Vaccines (Cervarix and Gardasil) are recommended for girls and women between the ages of 9 and 26, and Gardasil is also approved for men and boys. “Studies of boys and men are still being done to see how effective vaccination will be against cancer for them,” Cullins says. “At this time, there are no studies to show exactly how effective vaccination is in protecting against cancers of the mouth or throat. However, since vaccination protects against other diseases caused by HPV, there should be protection against oral cancers.”
- Don’t smoke, and drink only in moderation.“Not smoking, moderate drinking, and practicing good oral hygiene are excellent ways to protect against many oral and throat cancers,” Cullins says. Remember that 8 of 10 oral cancers are caused by smoking or drinking, she adds.
- Practice safe sex.HPV is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Know the sexual history of your partners, and limit the number of partners you have. Always use condoms, even for oral sex. “We do not know how much protection is offered by using a condom during oral sex on a man, but it should offer some protection,” Cullins says.
- Get regular check-ups.Visit your dentist and your doctor at recommended intervals and have appropriate screening tests. Generally, cancer treatments are most effective when cancers are detected in their earliest stages.
Oral cancer from HPV is relatively rare, but you don’t want to be among those who get cancer of the head or neck from HPV. Talk to your doctor and adopt healthy behaviors that lower your risk.
Video: Snapshot of HPV
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