Oral sex is a commonly performed act of foreplay involving the kissing or licking of the genital area to pleasure a partner. However, it is sometimes stated that the act alone can increase the risk of throat cancer. Is this really the case?
Sexual health presents a range of risks, but worrying about potential health concerns can decrease intimacy between partners and, ultimately, quality of life.
While caution is always advised when it comes to protection against sexual health problems, it is important to know the facts.
This MNT Knowledge Center article will discuss the links between oral sex, HPV, and throat cancer. It will also explain the major risk factors for throat cancer.
Fast facts on oral sex and throat cancer
- Oral sex does not directly cause throat cancer, but it can spread HPV.
- HPV can cause pre-cancerous changes in cells that may lead to throat cancer later on.
- An estimated 35 percent of cancers are infected with HPV.
- Smoking and alcohol consumption further increase the risk that an HPV infection will become cancerous.
- The early stages of oral cancer may cause discolored tissues in the mouth, mouth sores and ulcers that do not heal, and swelling or lumps in the mouth.
Although smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol are the primary risk factors for oral cancer, the HPV virus may also be linked to oral cancer.
It is estimated that 35 percent of throat cancers are infected with HPV.
HPV has been demonstrated as one of the leading risk factors for cancer of the mouth and throat, known as oropharyngeal cancer.
The infection does not directly cause oral cancer. The virus triggers changes in the infected cells. The genetic material of the virus becomes part of cancer cells, causing them to grow. This can lead to the detection of HPV in people who have cancers that were caused by other factors.
Later on, these cells can become cancerous. However, few people with an HPV infection will develop cancer. In fact, the body clears around 90 percent of HPV infections within 2 years.
The subtypes of HPV found in the mouth are almost all sexually transmitted, so oral sex is a probable cause.
People who smoke are less likely to be able to clear an HPV infection because smoking damages immune cells in the skin. These normally help protect against viral damage.
In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007, researchers suggested that people who have oral sex with at least six different partners have a significantly higher risk of developing throat cancer.
The team recruited 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 throat cancer. Those with 26 or more vaginal sex partners had 3.1 times the risk of developing throat 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.
Men with one of those risk factors saw a lower risk of throat cancer at 7.3 percent. 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.
Many media outlets have represented this data poorly, framing oral sex as a direct cause of cancer.
However, the conclusions drawn from research to date are that HPV can be transmitted by oral sex and that it is linked to changes in the infected cells.
While HPV is not a sole cause of throat cancer, having it increases the risk that throat cancer may develop.
Other risk factors to avoid include:
- Smoking: Tobacco smoking is by far the most important risk factor for all cancers of the head and neck, including throat cancer. Regular, long-term, heavy smokers are 20 times more likely to develop a type of throat cancer compared with non-smokers.
- Alcohol: The heavy, ongoing consumption of alcoholic drinks, particularly spirits, also raises the risk of developing throat cancer.
- Exposure to dangerous substances: Prolonged exposure to paint fumes, wood dust and shavings, and some of the chemicals used in the plastic, metal, and textile industries can also increase the risks.
People that drink and smoke heavily face the highest risk. It is also worth noting a piece of research from May 2013 that suggests people who neither smoke nor drink but have frequent heartburn have a higher risk of developing cancers of the throat and vocal cord.
The symptoms of HPV are often 'silent,' and people will usually not know they have the virus. It can be passed on even though symptoms are not obvious.
However, the condition may be advancing to an early stage of oral cancer when the following signs start to occur:
- a mouth sore or ulcer occurs that does not heal within 3 weeks
- soft tissues of the mouth becoming discolored
- pain while swallowing and a feeling as if food sticks in the throat
- swelling with no pain in the tonsils
- pain while chewing
- an ongoing sore throat or croaky voice with a persistent cough
- a feeling of numbness in the mouth and lips
- any swelling or lumps in the mouth, as well as painless lumps on the outside of the neck
- a one-sided earache that persists for more than several days
Visit a doctor if you notice these symptoms.
The relationship between HPV and throat cancer is still being researched.
While there are links between both oral sex and the transmission of oral HPV, and between throat cancer and oral HPV, the virus has not been conclusively linked to the development of oral cancers.
Oral sex does, however, increase the risk of HPV transmission. Extra precautions are recommended, such as wearing contraception during oral sex and limiting the number of sexual partners you have.