A mini-tsunami of publicity has been generated by the actor Michael Douglas asserting his throat cancer is due to HPV and, by extension, oral sex. ASHA’s HPV Resource Center has increasingly been fielding questions around oral sex and HPV, and this latest round of publicity has triggered even more interest. So what’s the scoop here?
It is possible to contract HPV by performing oral sex on a partner with HPV (although the overall risk is lower than with genital-to-genital contact or anal sex). HPV-related cancers are relatively rare, however, especially when you consider just how common HPV is. The vast majority (some estimates peg it at 75% or more) of sexually active people have one or more HPV infections in their lifetimes. We also know that oral sex is a routine practice, an experience that most sexually active individuals are likely to have. So lots of HPV, lots of oral sex….but very, very few head and neck cancers.
HPV-related head and neck cancers tend to affect the oropharynx (mostly the back of the tongue, tonsils, and side and back of the throat). Data from the National Cancer Institute tell us there are about 13,000 oropharyngeal cancers each year in the U.S., 60%-70% of which appear to be caused by one HPV type, HPV 16. As is the case with cervical cancer, oropharyngeal tumors caught early are highly treatable and those caused by HPV have a high survival rate.
This is an emerging area of interest and study, and in the years to come we’ll surely know more about oral HPV infections, the routes of transmission, and related diseases. It’s important to keep the risk in perspective: head and neck cancers are not common in general, only one type seems linked to HPV, and most oral HPV infections do not lead to cancer.
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