Can oral sex at a young age give you mouth and throat cancer? Shocking new study issues warning
Having more than 10 prior oral sex partners was also linked with a 4.3-times greater likelihood of having human papillomavirus-related cancer
Human papillomavirus (HPV) can infect the mouth and throat to cause cancers. However, researchers have now found that the timing and intensity of oral sex may increase the risk of developing throat and mouth cancers linked to HPV.
Having more than 10 prior oral sex partners was associated with a 4.3-times greater likelihood of having HPV-related cancer. The analysis also shows that having oral sex at a younger age and more partners in a shorter time period (oral sex intensity) were associated with higher likelihoods of having HPV-related cancer of the mouth and throat.
“Number of oral sex partners remains a strong risk factor for HPV-OPC (human papillomavirus-related oropharyngeal cancer). However, the timing and intensity of oral sex are novel independent risk factors. These behaviors suggest additional nuances of how and why some individuals develop HPV-OPC,” write authors from Johns Hopkins University in Cancer, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society.
Oropharyngeal cancer is a disease in which malignant cells form in the tissues of the oropharynx. The oropharynx is the middle part of the pharynx (throat), behind the mouth. In 2020, the American Cancer Society estimated that about 53,260 Americans would get oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer, and about 10,750 people will die of these cancers.
How common is HPV infection in the US?
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the US. An estimated 79M Americans, most in their late teens and early 20s, are infected with HPV. About 14M people become newly infected each year.
“In most cases, HPV goes away on its own and does not cause any health problems. But when HPV does not go away, it can cause health problems like genital warts and cancer. Cancer often takes years, even decades, to develop after a person gets HPV. The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types of HPV that can cause cancers,” says the agency.
A person can get HPV by having vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who has the virus. HPV can be passed even when an infected person has no sign or symptom. One can also develop symptoms years after having sex with someone who is infected, which makes it hard to know when a person first became infected.
To examine how behavior related to oral sex may affect risk, the investigators asked 163 individuals with and 345 without HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer to complete a behavioral survey.
After adjustment for several oral sex partners and smoking, younger age at first oral sex (less than 18 versus greater than 20 years (adjusted odds ratio of 1.8) and oral sex intensity (adjusted odds ratio of 2.8) remained associated with significantly increased odds of HPV-linked cancers.
Besides timing and intensity of oral sex, individuals who had older sexual partners when they were young, and those with partners who had extramarital sex were more likely to have HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer, suggests the team.
“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. As the incidence of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer continues to rise in the US, 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,” says Dr Virginia Drake from Johns Hopkins University.
How can you avoid it?
The CDC recommends getting vaccinated against HPV. It cautions that HPV is so common that almost every person who is sexually-active will get HPV at some time in their life if they do not get the HPV vaccine. “It can protect against diseases (including cancers) caused by HPV when given in the recommended age groups. CDC recommends HPV vaccination at age 11 or 12 years (or can start at age 9 years) and for everyone through age 26 years, if not vaccinated already,” suggest experts.
Since HPV can infect areas not covered by a condom, the latter cannot fully protect a person against getting HPV. “Be in a mutually monogamous relationship – or have sex only with someone who only has sex with you,” advises the CDC.