Oral sex between couples in a relationship should be considered pleasurable and fun. Unfortunately, it may be dangerous, especially for men who have had a high number of oral sex partners. There is a new study that showed that this behavior is linked to HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers.
Lucky for those men and women who enjoy oral sex, there is a cancer preventing vaccine that reduces your risk of contracting HPV, thereby reducing your risk of getting the cancer. Let’s hope that this significant risk of a deadly and disfiguring cancer will convince people to get the vaccine for their children.
This article will look at HPV, the HPV cancer preventing vaccine, the new study on oral sex, and how you can protect your life.
All about HPV and the cancer preventing vaccine
I know, I’ve written about this vaccine 100 times, so you’ve read these paragraphs enough to quote them without looking. Actually, I change it up with new information frequently.
However, for some of you, this might be your first bit of research into the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, so it’s important to get a brief overview of HPV and the vaccines. If you’ve read this before, just skip to the next section if you want.
Genital and oral HPV are the most common sexually transmitted infections (STI) in the USA. There are more than 150 strains or subtypes of HPV that can infect humans, although only 40 of these strains are linked to a variety of cancers. HPV is generally transmitted from personal contact during vaginal, anal or oral sex.
Although the early symptoms of HPV infections aren’t serious, those infections are closely linked to many types of cancers in men and women. According to current medical research, here are some of the cancers that are linked to HPV:
These are all dangerous and disfiguring cancers that can be mostly prevented by the HPV cancer vaccine. If you’re a male, and you think that these are mostly female cancers, penile cancer can lead to amputation of your penis. Just think about that guys.
HPV is believed to cause nearly 5% of all new cancers across the world, making it almost as dangerous as tobacco with respect to cancer. According to the CDC, roughly 79 million Americans are infected with HPV–approximately 14 million Americans contract a new HPV every year. Most individuals don’t even know they have the infection until the onset of cancer. About 27,000 HPV-related cancers are diagnosed in the USA every year.
There were two HPV vaccines on the market before 2014. GSK, also known as GlaxoSmithKline manufactured Cervarix, a bivalent vaccine, but it has been withdrawn from the US market, because of the competition from the other HPV vaccines. In Europe and other markets, Gardasil is known as Silgard.
Merck manufactures the other HPV vaccines. Its first vaccine, the quadrivalent Gardasil, targets the two HPV genotypes known to cause about 70% of cervical cancer and two other HPV genotypes that cause genital warts. The newer Gardasil 9, approved by the FDA in 2014, is a 9-valent vaccine. It targets the four HPV genotypes in the quadrivalent version, along with five additional ones that are linked to cervical and other types of cancer. Both versions of Gardasil are prophylactic, meant to be given before females or males become exposed to possible HPV infection through intimate contact.
Oral sex and oropharyngeal cancer
There are two general forms of oropharyngeal cancer (OPC) – smoking related and HPV-related. Of course, some people may have contracted HPV from oral sex and who smoke, which put them at the highest risk of the cancer. The most common subtypes of HPV that are linked to OPC are 16 and 18. The Gardasil 9 cancer preventing vaccine protects against both of those HPV subtypes.
The risk of OPC is generally quite low. In 2012, there were nearly 40,000 new cases of OPC diagnosed in the United States, with nearly 9,000 deaths related to the cancer. Unfortunately, HPV-related OPC has doubled over the past 20 years, even as smoking related OPC has dropped as a result of the reduction in smoking. Researchers project that oropharyngeal cancer will be more common than cervical cancer in the USA by 2020.
A recent article, by Dr. Amber D’Souza et al. published in the Annals of Oncology, examined 13,089 people between the ages of 20 and 69, who had been tested for oral HPV infection. The researchers then combined that data with OPC cases from the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER 18) cancer registries, and OPC mortality from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).
The authors found that 7.4 % of men who engaged in oral sex with five or more partners had a an oral infection with the cancer-causing subtypes of HPV. Only 1.5% of men who had one or no partners, had that infection.
Smoking substantially increased the risk. Men who had two to four oral sex partners had a risk of 4% for the cancer-causing HPV infection. However, for those men with two to four partners and who smoked, the risk increased dramatically to 7.1%. And those men who smoked and engaged in oral sex with five or more partners had a risk of 15%.
Interestingly, the results show no increased risk of women of HPV who engage in oral sex with multiple partners. I couldn’t tell if there was some sort of bias in the results, but women have to be more concerned with HPV-related cervical cancer. Obviously, the HPV vaccine is still very important.
And in case you were wondering, individuals testing positive for HPV subtype 16 viral oral infection have a 14X increased risk of developing OPC. In other words, preventing an HPV infection will reduce your risk, substantially, of contracting oropharyngeal cancer. And in case you missed what I wrote above several times, we can prevent an HPV infection with the HPV cancer preventing vaccine.
Summary – oral sex and HPV related cancers
This article shows an increased risk of HPV infections, which are related to oropharyngeal cancers, for men who engage in oral sex with multiple partners. And if those men also smoke, that risk goes way up.
For women who engage in oral sex with multiple partners, there doesn’t appear to be increased risk, although women are subject to other serious HPV-related cancers, such as cervical cancer.
Of course, you can substantially reduce, if not eliminate, your risk for HPV related cancers, including oropharyngeal cancer, by getting one of the HPV vaccines like Gardasil 9. I know, you’re saying your 11 year old son or daughter will never be at risk – you just don’t know what will happen 10 or 20 years down the road. Protecting them against HPV is the right decision.
- Chaturvedi AK, Engels EA, Pfeiffer RM, Hernandez BY, Xiao W, Kim E, Jiang B, Goodman MT, Sibug-Saber M, Cozen W, Liu L, Lynch CF, Wentzensen N, Jordan RC, Altekruse S, Anderson WF, Rosenberg PS, Gillison ML. Human papillomavirus and rising oropharyngeal cancer incidence in the United States. J Clin Oncol. 2011 Nov 10;29(32):4294-301. doi: 10.1200/JCO.2011.36.4596. Epub 2011 Oct 3. PubMed PMID: 21969503; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3221528.
- D’Souza G, McNeel TS, Fakhry C. Understanding personal risk of oropharyngeal cancer: risk-groups for oncogenic oral HPV infection and oropharyngeal cancer. Ann Oncol. 2017 Oct 19. doi: 10.1093/annonc/mdx535. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 29059337.
- Michl P, Pazdera J, Prochazka M, Pink R, Stosova T. Human papillomavirus in the etiology of head and neck carcinomas. Biomed Pap Med Fac Univ Palacky Olomouc Czech Repub. 2010 Mar;154(1):9-12. Review. PubMed PMID: 20445705.
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