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The Unfortunate Link Between Oral Sex And Cancer


Dami Olonisakin

Editorial Assistant

It's not great news, we're afraid.

It's not great news, we're afraid. Image credit: Jacon Lund/Shutterstock

Oral sex between couples in a monogamous or open relationship shouldn’t have them fearing for their lives, but a new study reveals that men who have a high number of oral sex partners could increase their risk of head and neck cancer. The same is true for men who smoke, with the highest risk category being men who smoke and have a high number of oral sex partners.

While the rate of those being diagnosed with oropharyngeal (middle part of the throat) cancer is low – with only 0.7 percent of men being diagnosed and an even lower percent of women – the study shows that HPV-related oropharyngeal squamous cell cancer among men has doubled over the last 20 years. By 2020, they estimate that oropharyngeal cancer will become a bigger issue than cervical cancer in the US.


Study author Dr Amber D'Souza, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said: “Most people perform oral sex in their lives, and we found that oral infection with cancer-causing HPV was rare among women regardless of how many oral sex partners they had. Among men who did not smoke, cancer-causing oral HPV was rare among everyone who had less than five oral sex partners, although the chances of having oral HPV infection did increase with number of oral sexual partners, and with smoking."

The study, published in Annals of Oncology, included 13,089 people between the ages of 20 and 69, who had been tested for oral HPV infection. They then used data on US oropharyngeal cancer cases and deaths to predict one's cancer risk from oral HPV.

Men who engage in oral sex with five or more partners had a prevalence of 7.4 percent for oral infection with cancer-causing types of HPV. This is compared with 1.5 percent of men who had oral sex with one or no partners. For those with two to four oral sex partners, their risk increased to 4 percent – smoking made this worse, jumping the risk to 7.1 percent. Men who smoke and engage in oral sex with five or more partners landed at 15 percent.

"Currently there are no tests that could be used for screening people for oropharyngeal cancer," said co-author Dr Carole Fakhry, an associate professor from Johns Hopkins Department of Otolaryngology, in a statement. "It is a rare cancer and for most healthy people the harms of screening for it would outweigh the benefits because of the problem of false positive test results and consequent anxiety.”


“Our research shows that identifying those who have oral HPV infection does not predict their future risk of cancer well, and so screening based on detecting cancer-causing oral HPV infection would be challenging," Fakhry added. "However, we are carrying out further research of oral HPV infection in young healthy men to explore this further."

Richard Shaw, a Cancer Research UK scientist from the University of Liverpool, shared earlier this year that there has been a debate about vaccinating not only young girls, but boys too. He also added that “along with vaccinating against HPV, helping people to quit smoking and cut down on alcohol are important.”

This article was originally published in October 2017.


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