More than 50% of cancers of the mouth, head, and neck are now due to the human papilloma virus (HPV). While there are over 100 unique strains of HPV, there are several that are known to be sexually transmitted and these are the ones that doctors and researchers are seeing in ever increasing numbers in the 37,000 cancers of the mouth diagnosed every year.
A sexually transmitted virus makes its way from the vulva or the penis to the mouth via oral-genital contact. Oral sex.
Many people don’t consider oral sex to be “sex”, and while it isn’t vaginal (or anal) intercourse, it is still sex. (By the way, it’s not only HPV that can be transmitted by oral sex, but herpes, gonorrhea, chlamydia, hepatitis B, and HIV as well. And the transmission goes both ways, so you can technically be a virgin when it comes to vaginal/penile penetration, but engage in oral sex and either catch an STD in your mouth or on your genitals).
So just how strong is the oral sex – oral cancer link? Well, Dr. Maura Gillison, a leading researcher in the field, says there is research to say that individuals who have practiced oral sex on six or more lifetime partners have an eightfold increased risk of developing oral cancer. Eight times!
How can you protect yourself and/or your kids?
- Education. Understand that oral sex is sex with all the same risks except pregnancy. A 2005 study published in Pediatrics tells us that 20% of kids in grade nine have already tried oral sex (compared to 13% who have tried vaginal sex), and 31% said they intended on having oral sex within the next six months! Most teens in this study perceived oral sex as safe and ranked oral sex as less risky than vaginal sex. One in seven believed there was no risk of sexually transmitted diseases with oral sex.
- Limit your partners. It’s a numbers game. More oral sex with different people, more HPV exposure.
- Avoid the use of alcohol/drugs around sex because that clouds decision making. Beer googles make most people look “safe” and all of a sudden everything looks like a good idea.
- Use a barrier methods for oral sex. There are a variety of different options, all with pros and cons. Sutter Health has a web page on the subject with excellent, explicit information about why barrier methods are needed for oral sex and specific instructions. Read this for yourself and/or print it out and give it to your kids.
- Encourage the HPV vaccine for everyone ages 9-26 years of age.