The famous actor Michael Douglas is in remission from stage IV throat cancer that he at first announced was due to the human papilloma virus, specifically HPV 16 and oral sex. Of late, though, has recanted that statement saying that his particular cancer was due to other reasons.
This has caused a lot of confusion for those wanting clearer answers on the risks associated with oral sex and the transmission of this aggressive virus.
There are several strains of HPV that can be transmitted from one person to another. Some strains cause genital warts, some cause cervical abnormalities or cervical cancer while others, potentially in a case such as Michael Douglas described, cause throat cancer.
For most women this virus is associated with abnormal Pap smear results. This is the reason for regular screenings. It is reported that 50-80 percent of sexually active people have the HPV virus even with normal Pap tests or no symptoms of warts. The reason for this is that HPV is transmitted from skin-to-skin contact.
This means that actual intercourse does not have to occur to contract the virus nor does there have to be an exchange of fluids. Therefore in throat cancer, transmission is through mouth and genital contact.
Throat cancer can result from other factors besides HPV, such as tobacco (smoking and chewing), alcohol consumption, poor diet high in charred meat/red meat, and certain carcinogenic chemicals.
Symptoms often include a cough, pain in the throat, sensation of a lump in the throat, clearing the throat often, painful or sore tongue, change in voice (usually hoarse or lower voice), difficulty swallowing food or drink, and possibly bleeding in the throat or mouth that is ongoing for several weeks.
Diagnosis is typically done with a scope and biopsy. Unlike HPV of the cervix which can affect a woman from their first sexual skin-to-skin experience, throat cancer is often diagnosed in those older than 50 and is more common in men.
So what can you do? Be careful and be selective.
While hormone birth controls and the IUD protect against pregnancy, they do not protect against sexually transmitted infections, including HPV, therefore a barrier method is important.
Consider the HPV vaccine as HPV 16 (the more aggressive form and form often associated with throat cancer) is one of the strains it protects against. The vaccine is available to boys, girls, young women and men.
Lastly, continue to have regular cervical screenings and talk with your health care provider about additional workup if you are experiencing any of the throat or mouth symptoms for an extended period of time.
1. Chusteka, Z. (2013). HPV Oral Cancer: Low Risk for HPV Transmission. Web. 16 June, 2013.
2. Pittman, G. (2012). HPV Tied to Throat Cancers. Web. 16 June, 2013.
3. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2012). Throat Cancer. Web. 16 June, 2013.
4. American Cancer Societ. (2013). Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer. Web. 16 June, 2013.
Reviewed June 17, 2013
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith