Can Oral Sex Lead to Throat Cancer?


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The information surrounding the link between oral sex and throat cancer has especially started to surface in light of actor Michael Douglas’ recent diagnosis with oropharyngeal cancer (or throat cancer).

In an interview with the UK newspaper The Guardian, Douglas cited oral sex, specifically contracting HPV (human papillomavirus), as a reason for his development of the cancer.

HPV, a sexually transmitted disease (STD) is a very common disease with more than 40 subtypes that infects more than 79 million Americans, is asymptomatic and is spread through sexual contact. Current studies suggest that HPV causes approximately 1,700 cases of throat cancer in women and 6,700 cases in men.

Yet the information seems to be conflicted. On the one hand, studies show that there is a 7% chance partners who participate in regular oral sex will contract HPV, the same percentage as the general population. Additionally, within that 7% of infected patients, only 2% of women and no men were found to be infected with HPV 16, the type of virus which most commonly leads to throat cancer.

Dr. Gypsyamber D’Souza of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health has found that the risk of developing head and neck cancers for people whose partners have HPV-related cancer is very low.

However, a 2011 study found that the proportion of throat cancers as caused by or related to HPV increased from approximately 16% to almost 72%. The reasons for the jump are unknown but scientists speculate it may be due to the largely asymptomatic nature of HPV, the many benign types of HPV, and the fact that most people do not think to use protection or preventative measures when participating in oral sex. The large jump in percentage of infection rates led the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to name HPV as the leading cause of oral cancer in Americans under the age of 50, overtaking tobacco. Luckily, early detection of oral cancer means an 80-90% chance of successful recovery and remission.

Performing oral sex on a partner with HPV is not enough, however, to develop throat cancer. A study performed by The New England Journal of Medicine found that people who have oral sex with at least 6 different partners have a significantly higher risk, 3.4 times more of a risk, to develop throat cancer.

While performing regular oral sex certainly contributes to the development of throat cancer due to a high risk of continued exposure to the HPV virus, it is not the only reason a person may develop or contract throat cancer. The CDC lists regular, long-term smoking and chronic consumption of alcohol as huge risks in association with the development of head and neck cancers. Those who are both long-term smokers and drinkers are at an even higher risk, more so than those who may participate in regular oral sex. Another risk is frequent heartburn, usually brought on by intense bouts of stress.

Michael Douglas, a regular smoker, drinker, and a man who is constantly under stress, most likely developed throat cancer as a result of his lifestyle, not as a result of performing oral sex or the HPV virus.

Oral sex may increase your chances of developing throat cancer, but only if you participate in oral sex with multiple partners with the HPV virus. Additionally, smoking and excessive drinking may also increase your chances of developing oropharyngeal cancer.

Getting tested for most common STDs will help you know that you are STD free. One of the best STD test panel testing websites I have come across is STDcheck.com but there are other STD testing websites out there.

The only 100% effective way to avoid throat cancer as caused by HPV is to abstain from sexual contact with infected genitals. If participating in oral sex, make sure to use protection, like dental dams and condoms, to help prevent the spread of HPV and regularly test yourself and your partner for STDs, including HPV.

Author’s bio: Jessica Malleby is a writer and seeks to educate the public on STDs to help prevent the spread of these diseases.