Is there a link between oral sex and throat cancer?

A study found that men who performed oral sex on five or more women are at a greater risk of mouth and throat cancers, apart from sexually transmitted diseases. Though there's correlation between oral sex and throat cancer, researchers admit no causation.

Do you like going down on your partner? Then you need to read this. There’s a correlation between oral sex and throat cancer, the Evening Standard reported last year.

Specifically, the report said, “Men who have performed oral sex on five or more women are at greater risk of developing head and neck cancer, especially if they smoke.”

The Evening Standard’s story was based on a US study that looked into 9,425 people between the ages of 20 and 59 years. These participants provided information regarding the number of their oral sex partners, then the researchers tested them for oral human papilloma virus (HPV).

oral sex and throat cancer

For those unfamiliar with HPV, it’s a virus that can infect moist membranes. Certain HPV strains can increase the risk of cervical cancer in women. If particular strains are found in the mouth, this may increase the risk of mouth and throat cancers. The virus can also cause genital warts.

Oral sex and throat cancer, correlation but no causation

The researchers found that 6% of men and 1% of women carried potentially cancer-causing strains of HPV in their mouths. They also noted that this was more common in smokers, particularly in men with a high number of oral sex partners.

Though the study showed a correlation, we must remember that the study did not prove causation and is not accurate enough to link a specific number of partners with the risk of carrying oral HPV or cancer.

Oral sex and throat cancer, misleading stories

oral sex and throat cancer

Mmmm cancer

Be that as it may, according to the US National Library of Medicine’s National Center for Biotechnology Information, the UK media’s headlines for this story were generally misleading.

The research looked at a range of risk factors, but the headlines focused more on oral sex. Many of these headlines gave the impression that a direct link had been identified and established between a specific number of sexual partners and getting cancer. But actually, the research looked at the effect the number of partners had on how common the cancer-causing oral HPV was.

They also made predictions about cancer risk based on other data. Most articles clarified this point further down their articles, but since people often just skip the last parts, this may have caused confusion.

It would have been better for these reports to emphasise the fact that smoking particularly increased the risk of HPV-associated cancers. Many articles also referred to this as “head and neck cancer,” when the study actually looked at cancers of the mouth and throat.

Researchers conclude on oral sex and throat cancer

oral sex and throat cancer

“I hope you don’t get cancer!”

But take comfort. The researchers concluded that cancer-causing oral HPV isn’t that common in the general population. This means that carrying out whole-population screening would not be useful in cancer prevention.

However, they did note that mouth and throat cancers were becoming more common in recent years. So it would be useful to identify people at higher risk of these cancers, including people who have a high risk of getting an oral HPV infection.

Still, the researchers assured everyone that even high-risk people have a low risk of developing mouth and throat cancers.

There’s a vaccine against some strains of HPV that medical professionals can give to girls aged 12 to 13. At present, males who want the vaccine are more likely to pay for it. The course of three injections cost around $560 last year.

Limitations on oral sex and throat cancer

oral sex and throat cancer

Where the magic happens

It’s worth noting that the study has limitations. For example, the study only looked at US data. So we cannot directly apply these findings to other countries.

Another limitation of the study is that it didn’t look into when the participants became infected, and they didn’t put a definite number on the risk of developing cancer. In short, further research is required for more conclusive findings.

Oral sex and throat cancer doesn’t happen often

Still, we advise people to practice safe sex to reduce the risk of getting sexually transmitted infections.

The research found that getting cancer from oral sex is still very rare. In fact, they estimate that only seven in 1,000 men and two in 1,000 women catch it this way.

So don’t worry too much. The odds are to low that you’ll catch it, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t practice safe sex. If you’re concerned about the potential risk from oral sex, use a dental dam. It’s a piece of latex that covers the vagina and anus, which can protect you from catching sexually transmitted infections.

 

Sources: The Evening Standard, The Independent, Annals of Oncology, National Center for Biotechnology 

You can also read: Vaginal odour: 9 different types you must know about