Does Oral Sex Increase Cancer Risk?

HPV may be to blame, but what are the risks for gays and lesbians?

There was a sign hanging in the dentist’s office recently warning about the dangers of oral cancer. Attention getting, to say the least. New Scientist reported several years ago that people who have had more than five different oral sex partners are more than 250 percent more likely to develop throat cancer. And according to doctors, the numbers are increasing.

Researchers believe that oral sex may be responsible for transferring the human papillomavirus (HPV) from one sexual partner to another – specifically infiltrating the oral cavity. In the past, HPV was believed to cause many new cases of cervical (and even anal) cancer among straight women and gay men, respectively. The biggest obstacle in preventing transmission is that many carriers of the disease may not even know they have it. Not all infected people show the tell-tale signs, like genital warts. In many cases, HPV is invisible to the naked eye.

“Skin-to-skin contact is how HPV is spread,” explains Dr. Robert Winn of Philadelphia’s Mazzoni Center, an LGBT health center. “Barrier methods are only partially effective at decreasing transmissions. The best advice is to talk to your partners and talk to your clinician if you have bumps or sores.”

In the past, head and neck cancer was believed to be caused by excessive smoking and drinking. But as these behaviors wane among younger, healthier adults, researchers are trying to figure out whether oral sex is to blame for increased cases of cancer in young to middle-age people who are sexually (and orally) active.

Luckily, there is an HPV vaccine. And while not especially popular among parents of teens who are in deep denial about their sons and daughters being sexual active, the next generation has the potential to trim down its chances of getting cancer from HPV by simply getting vaccinated.

Vaccination for four strains of HPV are available for men and women up to age 26. “After that, insurance doesn’t cover it,” Winn explains. He recommends that all sexually active men, women and transgender persons get the full series to prevent cervical and anal cancer, as well as genital and anal warts.

“For diseases like HIV, gonorrhea and chlamydia, condoms are very effective if used properly,” says Winn. “Unfortunately, STDs are more common among gay men, but lesbians are not immune. Unless you are in a monogamous relationship, you need to talk to your clinician about how often to be tested.”