According to recent studies, around 70% of oropharyngeal (the back one-third of the tongue, tonsils, soft palate, and the side and back walls of the throat) cancers may be caused by HPV. What does this have to do with oral sex, you ask? Well, in addition to being spread during anal and vaginal sex, HPV can also be spread through oral sex (as well as close skin contact during sex).
What’s more, a new study has found that the timing, as well as the intensity of oral sex, may also serve to greatly increase your risk of oropharyngeal cancer.
Oral sex and throat cancer
A recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal CANCER found that having oral sex with more than 10 previous partners was associated with a 4.3-times greater risk of developing HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer. The study also found that starting oral sex at a younger age and having more partners during a short period of time were linked to a higher likelihood of having HPV-related cancer of the mouth and throat.
For the study, Dr. Virginia Drake, MD from Johns Hopkins University, and her colleagues asked 163 individuals with and 345 without HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer to complete a behavioral survey.
Totaling the results, Dr. Drake and her colleagues found that individuals who had older sexual partners when they were younger and those with partners who had extramarital sex were more likely to have HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer.
“Our study builds on previous research to demonstrate that it is not only the number of oral sexual partners but also other factors not previously appreciated that contribute to the risk of exposure to HPV orally and subsequent HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer,” said Dr. Drake. “As the incidence of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer continues to rise in the United States, our study offers a contemporary evaluation of risk factors for this disease. We have uncovered additional nuances of how and why some people may develop this cancer, which may help identify those at greater risk.”
What are the other dangers of HPV
In addition to throat cancers, HPV can also increase your risk for cervical cancer – more than 9 of every 10 cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV. HPV can also cause genital warts.
How can I protect myself against HPV?
There are a few things that you can do to reduce your risk of contracting HPV. The Mayo Clinic suggests the following:
- Waiting to take part in sexual activity until you are ready.
- Being in a mutually monogamous sexual relationship.
- Reducing your number of sexual partners.
- Using a latex condom.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after the HPV vaccine was recommended in 2006 in the United States, quadrivalent type HPV infections decreased by 86% in female teens aged 14 to 19 years and 71% in women in their early 20s.
You can visit your local clinic to receive an HPV vaccine. It should be noted that HPV vaccinations only prevent new HPV infections – they cannot treat existing HPV infections or diseases.
HPV doesn’t really display symptoms – in fact, most people don’t even know that they have it.
This is why it’s important to go for regular screenings. A pap smear will help detect any abnormal HPV cells found in the cervix. Detecting it early can help to manage as well as prevent progression to cancer.
Women should go for regular Pap smears every three to five years.
How can I practice safe oral sex?
To protect both you and your partner during oral sex, Avert suggests the following safe-sex tips:
- Do not brush your teeth straight beforehand as you may make your mouth or gums bleed.
- Use a condom if you are giving oral sex to a man or a dental dam for oral sex on a woman or oral-anal sex. A dental dam is a thin, soft plastic cover that acts as a barrier. If you don’t have one, Avert suggests using a regular condom in its place.
Simply cut the condom lengthways from bottom to top to make one piece of material that can be used instead. Hold one side of the dam against your partner’s vagina/anus and lick the other. Never turn the dam over, just use one side.
- Avoid getting semen in your mouth.
It’s also advisable to avoid oral sex altogether if you have:
- sores around your mouth, genitals, or anus
- any damage to your gums
- throat infection
- had any recent dental work.
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