More on HPV, this time connected with oral cancer

The Voices of American Sexuality Blog recently included this post:

gone down on more than six people in your life? might as well be smoking two packs a day

Not the sort to provoke any additional moral panic around fellatio and its sista-friend, cunnilingus (that’s Oprah’s corner of the market; school bus episode anyone?) but according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, there is conclusive evidence that human papillomavirus (HPV), transmitted via fellatio, causes some throat cancers in both men and women. Reporting in the May 10 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers found that oral HPV infection is the strongest risk factor for oropharyngeal cancer (located in the tonsils, back of the tongue, and throat), even stronger than tobacco and alcohol use. Having multiple oral sex partners (more than six) tops the list of sex practices that boost risk for the HPV-linked cancer, although mouth to mouth transmission remains possible and was not ruled out by the study. Taking into account that approximately 20 million people are currently infected with HPV in the US alone, and about 6.2 million Americans get a new genital HPV infection each year, these new findings might be cause for concern amongst the extra sexually generous.

According to recent statistics from the CDC, by age 50, at least 80 percent of women will have acquired genital HPV infection. Stats for men are less clear; while most women are diagnosed with HPV on the basis of abnormal Pap tests which check for changes in the cervix, the cervixless are less likely to know if they’re carriers unless they develop one of the two (out of 30!) sexually transmitted strains that cause genital warts, the only visible symptom of the virus.

Maintaining its disheartening stance, the study points out that HPV-linked oral cancer has been on the rise since at least 1973, and is expected to beat out those caused by tobacco and alcohol use. Already accounting for 60 percent of oropharyngeal cancers and about a third of all oral cavity and pharynx cancers in the United States, there are more than 11,000 individuals currently kicking themselves for skipping that after sex smoke. Never mind the shot of Jack that got them there in the first place. So bring out your “inconspicuous” flask everyone already knows about and, what the hell, treat yourself to that carton you’ve been eyeing at Walgreen’s. After all, increasing your chances for oral cancer by two and a half or threefold (respectively) is nothing compared to the six plus oral sex partners you met over Spring Break. Yup, the same ones who, in a cruel twist of fate, made you 8.6 times more likely to lose a tongue.

Disappointing, but true, ladies and gentlemen. And it is information like this that adolescents need to be fully aware of as they begin their sexual interactions. Oral sex is becoming increasingly common among teenagers, often taking the place of vaginal sex because teenagers view it as harmless – no chance of pregnancy, no chance of STD contraction. This second assumption is just far too prevalent among teenagers. Check out two of my previous posts to read about what STDs can be contracted through oral sex and the research on the increasing rates of adolescent oral sex.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.