I recently sent an email to my three children (ages 18, 19 and 26) with the subject line “An important topic no one wants to talk about” that had them jokingly saying they were going to mark future emails from me as Spam. The unpleasant topic was related to the correlation between HPV (human papillomavirus), oral cancer and oral sex.
HPV is the broad term for a group of viruses, some of which are considered “low risk” and others which are “high risk” and cause genital cancers. HPV-16 is the strain that causes both genital and oral cancers.
In the past, the “model” for oral cancer was an older man who had spent a lifetime of smoking and drinking. But now, young people without the risk factors of smoking and drinking are being diagnosed with oral cancer. It is suspected that oral sex, considered by many young adults to be “safer” than intercourse, is considered the culprit.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, about 7 percent of men and women between the ages of 14 and 69 living in the United States carry HPV in their mouths. Advances in diagnosis have allowed researchers to test for viral DNA and have found HPV in many oral cancers. Even the location of HPV related oral cancer varies from the “traditional” oral cancers, with lesions being found primarily in the back of the throat and in the crypts, or crevices, of the tonsils.
I advise all my patients to be aware of the potential signs and symptoms of oral cancer:
- A unexplained white or red lesion in the mouth that is present for more than two weeks.
- A swelling in the throat
- Difficulty or painful swallowing
- A change in your voice
If you notice any of the above, call us for a complete evaluation.
Oral sex is not the only cause of transmission; HPV infection increases with the number of partners you have and is transmissible by skin to skin contact. Not all infections with HPV will lead to cancer. Of the 150 related viruses, about 40 are sexually transmitted and only some of those will cause cancer. Most infections with HPV are cleared by the body without any long term consequences.
If you would like additional information about HPV and cancer, visit: