Our bedroom behavior could potentially have an unusual health risk.  For most consenting individuals, oral sex is a part of their sexual relationships. It is included during foreplay and often in the midst of intercourse to prolong the climatic experience.

However, over the last five years, there has been a steady rise in cancers in the back of the throat known as oropharyngeal cancers. According to the CDC, 70% of these specific cancers are caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).  HPV is a sexually transmitted viral infection that has been linked to the cause of reproductive cancer in women and penile cancer in men. Both men and women can get anal cancer from HPV. While these latter cancers are widely known and associated with HPV, oropharyngeal cancer slips through the cracks; but HPV is still the leading cause.

The NHS reports that about “1 in 4 mouth cancers and 1 in 3 throat cancers are HPV-related. In younger patients, most throat cancers are now HPV-related.”  With more than 100 strains of HPV, only 15 are cancer-causing.  Statistically about 15% or less of HPV causes cancer. However, the rise in the exposure to that 15% is incentive enough to be more proactive in limiting potential exposure.

What is the cause? Unprotected oral sex. It only takes one infected individual to transfer the virus from their genitals to their partner’s mouth. However, participating in oral sex regularly with various partners exponentially increases your risk. Research performed by the John Hopkins Cancer Center also linked increased risk to throat cancer to participating in oral sex at an earlier age (under 18), higher oral sex “intensity” (more sex partners over a shorter time), and having oral sex prior to having other kinds of sex.

HPV is spread through skin contact. Therefore as long as an infected individual’s genital skin is in contact with someone’s mouth or their genitals, the virus spreads. HPV doesn’t always display symptoms in its host and can be transmitted to a second party without the first party showing symptoms.

This means your partner could carry the HPV virus and not know. If you both engage in unprotected sex and you become infected, you can carry the virus to your next partner who then carries the virus on their genitals or oral cavity each time they engage in oral sex. Everyone involved in a sexual relationship is at risk. 

To combat these risks, use condoms and dental dams when performing oral sex, have full STI panels conducted every six months, and as frequently as every two months if you participate in sexually risky behavior. Sexually risky behavior includes but is not limited to unprotected sex with non-monogamous individuals multiple partners, kinks that include the use of bodily fluids or bodily waste.

If during one of your examinations, abnormal cells are found, your medical practitioner may wish to take a biopsy of the tissue. If it is determined that the abnormal cells are caused by HPV, cryotherapy may be used to freeze the layer of tissue containing the cells. If during the next examination, cells are present, you may have to use other measures.

With Oral cancer, there are several signs you should be aware of. Healthline.com notes “early symptoms of oral cancer include: 

  • trouble swallowing
  • constant earaches
  • coughing up blood
  • unexplained weight loss
  • enlarged lymph nodes
  • constant sore throats
  • lumps on the cheeks
  • growths or lumps on the neck
  • hoarseness

With all things prevention and early detection are key.