Typically, when you think of the human papilloma virus (HPV) you tend to think of abnormal Pap smear results and cervical problems. A new trend facing America and many other countries is the rise of throat cancers due to HPV contracted during oral sex. In fact, oral cancer from HPV is now more common than oral cancer from tobacco use. Researchers found a 225 percent increase in oral cancer in the United States between the years 1974 to 2007, particularly in white males. In Stockholm,Sweden, 93 percent of all tonsillar cancers are due to HPV. These statistics are incredibly significant and a cause for great concern.
A patient in her early thirties came into my office having had a polyp removed from her throat. The surgeon put in his notes that it was probably due to HPV and I had to explain to her how this can transfer from the genital area to the throat. Naturally, she was mortified and concerned as she had a very limited number of partners. I explained to her that the risk increases with each partner and you have to take into consideration the number of partners/exposures your partner has had. Research shows that those who have performed oral sex on six or more partners in their life have an eight-fold higher risk of a head or neck cancer caused by HPV.
I suspect, and many other health care practitioners and researchers concur, that the rise of teenage sex, increased number of partners starting at a younger age, and the increase in oral sex (perhaps viewed as a safer alternative to intercourse) are the reasons behind this trend. Also, people often do not associate oral sex as risky behavior when in fact studies are showing otherwise.
Keep in mind, there are a couple hundred strains of HPV that can cause problems on the vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, and oral pharyngeal tissue and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half of all sexually active people will get HPV. Whether or not your tissues choose to express it depends on your body, risk factors, and your immune system.
Educate yourself, your family, friends and teenagers about the risks associated with oral sex. While you can’t become pregnant, you greatly increase your risk of contracting HPV and developing oral cancer.
1. Kelly J. HPV Causing ‘Slow Epidemic’ of Oral Cancers. Emerg Infect Dis. 2010;16:1671-1677.