Oral sex is a commonly performed act of foreplay involving the kissing or licking of the genital area to pleasure a partner. The human papillomavirus (HPV) can spread during oral sex, increasing the risk of throat cancer.

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HPV can spread during oral sex, increasing the possibility of cancer. In the United States, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus.

Sexual health presents a range of risks. However, worrying about potential health concerns can decrease intimacy between partners and, ultimately, quality of life. Doctors always advise caution when it comes to protection against sexual health problems.

This 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.
  • 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.

Oral sex involves using the mouth to stimulate the genitals or genital area of a partner.

This type of sex can spread sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as:

Prevention

A person can reduce their risk of contracting HPV by getting the HPV vaccine. The most common vaccine in the U.S. is Gardasil 9.

To reduce the risk of contracting STIs in general, a person can use a condom, dental dam, or other barrier methods every time they have oral sex. This can increase the safety of the act and lower the risk of passing or contracting an STI.

Learn about other safe sex practices.

The HPV infection does not directly cause oral cancer. The virus triggers changes in the infected cells. The virus’s genetic material becomes part of cancer cells, causing them to grow.

HPV causes 70% of the throat or oropharyngeal cancers in the U.S. These cancers tend to develop in the tonsils or the back of the tongue.

A person’s body usually clears most HPV infections within 2 years. 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.

HPV types

Some low risk types of HPV can cause the growth of warts in the mouth and throat. These growths are often benign.

However, they can cause severe airway obstruction and complications. In extremely rare cases, these warts become cancerous.

High risk HPV can cause several types of cancer if the immune system does not clear the infection.

While HPV is not the sole cause of throat cancer, having it increases the risk that throat cancer may develop.

Other risk factors include:

  • Smoking: Tobacco smoking is the most important risk factor for all cancers of the head and neck, including throat cancer. Regular, long-term, heavy smokers are more likely to develop a type of throat cancer than non-smokers.
  • Exposure to dangerous substances: Prolonged exposure to the following can also increase the risks:
    • paint fumes
    • wood dust and shavings
    • some of the chemicals used in the plastic, metal, and textile industries
  • Alcohol: The heavy, ongoing consumption of alcoholic drinks also raises the risk of developing throat cancer. Ethanol is the type of alcohol found in alcoholic drinks. Alcoholic drinks contain different percentages of ethanol. However, in general, a standard-size drink contains the same amount of ethanol of any type. Standard sizes for different types of alcoholic drinks include:
    • 12 ounces (oz) of beer
    • 5 oz of wine
    • 1.5 oz of liquor

Overall, the amount of alcohol someone drinks over time — not the type of alcoholic beverage — seems to be the most important factor in raising cancer risk. Most evidence suggests that it is ethanol that increases the risk, not other things in the drink.

People with gastroesophageal reflux disease have a slightly higher risk of getting esophageal cancer. This risk seems to be higher in people who have more frequent symptoms.

The symptoms of HPV are often “silent,” and people will usually not know they have the virus.

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

A person should consult a doctor if they notice these symptoms.

While there are links between oral sex and the transmission of oral HPV between throat cancer and oral HPV, researchers have not conclusively linked the virus with the development of oral cancers.

Oral sex does, however, increase the risk of HPV transmission. Doctors recommend extra precautions, such as using barrier methods during oral sex.