Although the link between HPV and these types of cancers is indisputable, the association with oral sex is strong but a little more speculative, experts say.
A 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that younger people with head and neck cancers who tested positive for oral HPV infection were more likely to have had multiple vaginal and oral sex partners in their lifetime.
In the study, having six or more oral sex partners over a lifetime was associated with a 3.4 times higher risk for oropharyngeal cancer — cancers of the base of the tongue, back of the throat or tonsils. Having 26 or more vaginal-sex partners tripled the risk.
And the association increased as the number of partners — in either category — increased.
The researchers also reported that cancers of the tonsil and base of the tongue have been increasing every year since 1973, and wrote that “widespread oral sex practices among adolescents may be a contributing factor in this increase.”
The researchers concluded that in their study, oral sex was “strongly associated” with oropharyngeal cancer, but noted that they could not “rule out transmission through direct mouth-to-mouth contact” such as French kissing.
In 90% of cases of HPV infection in the body, the immune system clears HPV naturally within two years, according to federal health agencies, but in some cases, certain types of HPV can lead to cervical cancer or less common malignancies, such as oropharyngeal cancer. A 2010 Swedish study, in fact, suggested that the rise in oropharyngeal squamous cell cancer in a number of countries “is caused by a slow epidemic of HPV infection-induced (cancers).”
HPV tends to be site specific, explained Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, an adjunct instructor in the division of infectious diseases at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. In other words, it tends to stay wherever it first enters the body, be it the vagina (which in some cases could lead to cervical cancer), or the mouth and throat.
Now here is the scary part:
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that, in 2002, some 90% of males and 88% of females aged 25 to 44 reported ever having oral sex with a partner of the opposite sex.
Comparable figures from 1992 showed that about three-quarters of men aged 20 to 39 and closer to 70% of women aged 18 to 59 having ever given or received oral sex.
And don’t forget that breast cancer has been linked to having abortions by several independent studies.