Skip to navigation menu Skip to content
Jump to:  A   |   B   |   C   |   D   |   E   |   F   |   G   |   H   |   I   |   J   |   K   |   L   |   M   |   N   |   O   |   P   |   Q   |   R   |   S   |   T   |   U   |   V   |   W   |   X   |   Y

Study Outlines Role of Oral Sex in Rare Throat, Mouth Cancers

Study Outlines Role of Oral Sex in Rare Throat, Mouth Cancers

TUESDAY, Jan. 12, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- People who began having oral sex at a young age or at greater "intensity" may face an increased risk of a type of throat cancer, a new study finds.

The study, published online Jan. 11 in the journal Cancer, focused on oropharyngeal cancer caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). The sexually transmitted infection can, in a small number of people, become persistent and lead to cancer.

Most famously, HPV is a cause of cervical cancer. But it is also linked to several others, oropharyngeal cancer being one. In fact, HPV is believed to cause 70% of cases in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Studies have already found that the risk of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer generally inches up with the number of lifetime oral-sex partners a person has.

The new study took a more nuanced look, the researchers said. It found that the risk of the cancer was 80% higher among people who began having oral sex before age 18, versus after age 20. That was independent of the number of lifetime partners people had.

Meanwhile, the risk of oropharyngeal cancer was nearly tripled among people who had had more than five oral-sex partners per decade since becoming sexually active, the findings showed.

That's a way of gauging the "intensity" of people's exposure to partners, and potentially to oral HPV, explained lead researcher Dr. Virginia Drake of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Drake pointed out that HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world. The CDC says it's so common that nearly all sexually active people will contract the virus at some point.

So, Drake said, it's important to dig into the factors that make only certain people vulnerable to a persistent HPV infection that leads to cancer.

But the findings do not change any practical advice to people, she said.

That point was echoed by Dr. H. Hunter Handsfield, a professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Washington Center for AIDS and STD, in Seattle.

"No one should take this to mean, 'don't have oral sex,'" said Handsfield, who is also an adviser to the American Sexual Health Association in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

For one, he said, oral sex is generally safer than intercourse when it comes to sexually transmitted diseases.

"And what no study has been able to answer is: If I take a young person and advise her to avoid oral sex, am I lowering her risk of throat cancer?" Handsfield said.

Since HPV is so prevalent, he said, "it's essentially an unavoidable exposure of being sexually active."

So the best way to lower the risk of HPV-related cancers is with the HPV vaccine. "That's the biggest message," Handsfield said.

The CDC recommends HPV vaccination for all girls and boys, starting as early as age 9 and by age 12. If they miss that window, catch-up shots can be given through age 26.

The current findings are based on surveys of 163 patients with HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer and 345 people without the disease. Both groups were similar in age, race and the proportion of men and women.

It's not clear why people who began having oral sex earlier in life, or at greater intensity, were at greater risk of the cancer. But one question, Drake said, is whether those factors can make it more difficult for the immune system to clear an HPV infection, which, most of the time, it does.

There is one theory, Drake noted, that if the body is first exposed to HPV via the mouth, rather than genitals, the immune response may be weaker. In this study, people with oropharyngeal cancer were more likely to say their first sexual experience had involved oral sex.

More research, however, is needed to understand what is going on, Drake said.

Handsfield said the study was well done and helps "fine-tune" the evidence on oral-sex behaviors and HPV-related throat cancer.

He added, though, that while certain study participants were at relatively greater risk of the cancer than others, that does not mean their absolute risk of the disease was high.

"This is still a pretty uncommon cancer," Handsfield said.

About 3,500 women and 16,200 men are diagnosed with HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer each year in the United States, according to the CDC.

More information

The American Sexual Health Association has more on HPV.

SOURCES: Virginia Drake, MD, resident, department of otolaryngology--head and neck surgery, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore; H. Hunter Handsfield, MD, professor emeritus, medicine, Center for AIDS and STD, University of Washington, Seattle, and adviser, American Sexual Health Association, Research Triangle Park, N.C.; Cancer, Jan. 11, 2021, online

Reviewed Date: --

This content was reviewed by Mid-Atlantic Womens Care, PLC. Please visit their site to find an Mid-Atlantic Womens Care obstetrician.

Find a pediatrician
Helpful Information
Mid-Atlantic Womens's Care
Childrens Orthopedics and Sports Medicine
Dr. James Bennett
Dr. J. Marc Cardelia
Dr. Peter Moskal
Dr. Cara Novick
Dr. Stephanie Pearce
Dr. Carl St. Remy
Sports Medicine
Dr. Joel Brenner
Dr. Aisha Joyce
Dr. Micah Lamb
Dr. David Smith
Infectious Diseases
Dr. Randall Fisher
Dr. Laura Sass
Hematology and Oncology
Dr. Wilson File
Dr. Eric Lowe
Dr. Melissa Mark
Dr. William Owen
Dr. Linda Pegram
Dr. Kevin Todd
Dr. Katherine Watson
Dr. Eric Werner
Ear, Nose and Throat Surgery
Dr. Cristina Baldassari
Dr. David Darrow
Dr. Craig Derkay
Dr. Thomas Gallagher
Dr. Stephanie Moody Antonio
Ear, Nose and Throat, Ltd.
Dr. Peter Bondy
Dr. Brian D. Deutsch
Dr. David Dorofi
Dr. R. Jeffrey Hood
Dr. John Kalafsky
Dr. Michael Shroyer
Immunization Quiz
Sexually Transmitted Infection Quiz
Teen Health Quiz
Health Screening Guidelines for Men 18 to 39
Health Screening Guidelines for Women 40 to 49
Health Screening Guidelines for Women 50 to 64
Health Screening Guidelines for Women 65+
Health Screening Guidelines, Women Ages 18 to 39
Health​ Screening ​Guidelines,​ Ages ​2 ​to ​18
Diseases & Conditions
Adolescent (13 to 18 Years)
Amenorrhea in Teens
Anxiety Disorders in Children
Breast Conditions in Young Women
Ewing Sarcoma in Children
Female Growth and Development
Gynecological and Menstrual Conditions
High Blood Pressure in Children and Teens
Home Page - Adolescent Medicine
Major Depression in Teens
Menstrual Cramps (Dysmenorrhea) in Teens
Menstrual Disorders
Mood Disorders in Children and Adolescents
Oral Health
Osteosarcoma (Osteogenic Sarcoma) in Children
Pap Test for Adolescents
Safer Sex Guidelines for Teens
Schizophrenia in Children
Sexually Transmitted Diseases in Adolescents
Teens and Diabetes Mellitus
The Growing Child- Teenager (13 to 18 Years)
Your Child's Asthma

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to substitute or replace the professional medical advice you receive from your child's physician. The content provided on this page is for informational purposes only, and was not designed to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Please consult your child's physician with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical condition.