According to recent reports, oral sex is now the leading factor in the recent surge in throat cancer cases.
Dr. Hisham Mehanna, a professor at the Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences at the University of Birmingham recently came out saying that there has been a “rapid increase” in oropharyngeal cancer, a type of throat cancer, in the past two decades, calling it an “epidemic” in both the U.S. and U.K.
“For oropharyngeal cancer, the main risk factor is the number of lifetime sexual partners, especially oral sex,” Mehanna wrote for The Conversation. “Those with six or more lifetime oral-sex partners are 8.5 times more likely to develop oropharyngeal cancer than those who do not practice oral sex.”
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, with 3 million new cases in the U.S. each year. Many people will live their lives without ever knowing that they have HPV, but for some, it can develop into cancer.
3 Things Everyone Should Know About HPV
– The human papillomavirus (HPV) causes 70% of oropharyngeal cancers
Of the 100 known strains of HPV, about 40 can spread through direct sexual contact to the genital areas, mouth and throat.
“While most HPV strains are harmless, at least nine of them are known to cause cancer,” says Dr. Allen Ho, director of the Head and Neck Cancer Program at Cedars-Sinai.
HPV 16 and 18 are the most common high-risk strains that can cause oropharyngeal cancers, also known as throat cancers or cancers of the oropharynx. (The oropharynx encompasses the back of the throat, including the tonsils and base of the tongue.) Those strains are also associated with anal, cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers in women as well as anal and penile cancers in men.
– Men are at higher risk
According to Cedars-Sinai, when it comes to oropharyngeal cancers caused by HPV, there’s not much research on the risks of getting the virus from giving oral sex to a man compared with giving oral sex to a woman.
“However, we do know that HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer is twice as common in men than women,” says Dr. Chen.
The concentration of HPV in the thinner, moister skin of the vulva is higher than the amount in the thicker, drier skin of the penis, which may affect how easy it is to transmit. But there could be other factors that explain the difference.
Tobacco and alcohol use may increase risk, for example, and both are more common among men. The number of sexual partners matters, too.
“There’s evidence that oropharyngeal cancers are more common in people who have had more than 20 sexual partners,” says Dr. Ho.
– HPV is very common, but most people with HPV won’t get cancer
“Some 80%-90% of sexually active people will get HPV at some point in their life, although most will never even know it,” says Dr. Ho, whose research focuses on identifying biomarkers to detect which HPV strains are likely to recur and be dangerous.
The body usually clears the virus without trouble. In some cases, however, the virus will remain in the body and lie dormant, and it can reawaken years later as cancer.
“It can take decades after being infected with HPV for cancer to develop,” says Dr. Ho.
It’s also unclear if having HPV alone is enough to cause oropharyngeal cancers. It’s possible that other factors, like using tobacco, may interact with HPV to cause these cancers. Still, the risk is low.
“While oropharyngeal cancers have been on the rise, fewer than 1% of people who get even the high-risk strains of HPV will go on to develop a related cancer,” Dr. Ho says.
5 Warning Signs of Oral Cancer to Look for
1. A sore on your lips/mouth
Your healthcare provider should evaluate a sore or irritation that lasts longer than two weeks.
The Cleveland Clinic states that the sore may appear reddish on your lips. If you have darker skin, it may appear brown or gray. Inside your mouth, the sore may occur as a red or white sore that doesn’t heal.
2. Patches in your mouth/throat
The Cleveland Clinic says that patches inside your mouth you cannot scrape away can indicate