Oral sex is a common form of sexual activity which stimulate the partner’s genitals area using the mouth, lips or tongue. It can be a lot of fun, but oral sex comes with a risk of oropharyngeal cancer.
Oropharyngeal cancer is a type of throat cancer that develops in the tissues of the oropharynx (the middle part of the throat that includes the soft palate, the base of the tongue and tonsils).
Several studies have found that some cancers of the oropharynx are caused by a certain type of human papillomavirus (HPV). Human papillomavirus is a common virus that’s passed on through either genital or oral sex. It can affect both men and women.
In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007, researchers suggested that people who had oral sex with at least six different partners has a significantly higher risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer.
The team evaluated 100 patients who had recently been diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer, as well as a control group of 200 healthy individuals.
They found that people who had at least six oral sex partners during their lifetime were 3.4 times more likely to have oropharyngeal cancer. Those with 26 or more vaginal sex partners had 3.1 times the risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer.
The presence of oral HPV that could cause cancer was found in another study to be 14.9 percent in men who smoked tobacco and have had more than five oral sex partners. Prevalence was much lower for both men (1.7 percent) and women (0.7 percent) who have had one lifetime oral sexual partner or less.
How do you get HPV from oral sex?
Since oral sex usually involves sucking or licking your partner’s genitals or anus, you’re likely to come into contact with genital fluids or feces and this puts you at risk of getting HPV. Generally, you’re more at risk of catching HPV from oral sex if:
- You don’t use protection.
- You have cuts, sores or ulcers in your mouth at the time you had oral sex.
- You give rather than receive oral sex because you’re more likely to be exposed to genital fluids.
How does HPV cause cancer?
HPV does not directly cause cancers, but it triggers changes in the infected cells. The genetic material of the virus becomes part of cancer cells, causing them to grow.
However, very few people infected with HPV will develop cancer. In 9 out of 10 cases, the infection is cleared naturally by the body within 2 years, but people who smoke are much less likely to clear the virus from their body. This is because smoking damages special protective cells in the skin, allowing the virus to persist.
How to minimize the risk of HPV infection
Here are things that you can do to lower your chance of getting or spreading HPV:
- Avoid having multiple sexual partners or oral sex with a new partner.
- Avoid oral sex when there are open cuts or sores in the mouth.
- Having regular STI screening tests if you’re sexually active.
- Use condoms and/or dental dams every time you have anal, vaginal, or oral sex. Although condoms and dental dams are not as effective against HPV as they are against other STDs like chlamydia and HIV, they can lower your chances of getting HPV.
- Get the HPV vaccine. It can protect against specific types of HPV, but keep in mind that the vaccine does not protect someone who is already infected. It is effective mostly in people who are not yet sexually active. Adolescents ages 9-14 are advised to get two vaccines over a 6-12-month period. Teens and young adults ages 15-26 need to get three vaccines over a 6-month period.