So, what exactly is the link between throat cancer and oral sex? In a recent interview, American actor Michael Douglas admitted that his throat cancer may have been caused by the human papilloma virus, or HPV, transmitted through oral sex.
HPV is a virus that is spread through physical, oral or genital contact. There are more than 100 strains of HPV. Some are benign, causing common skin warts, while others cause genital warts or are linked to certain cancers.
HPV-16 and HPV-18 are the 2 “high risk” strains most likely to cause cancer. HPV-16 alone is thought to be responsible for around 60% of cervical cancers, 80% of cancers in the anus and 35% of oropharyngeal cancers.
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology revealed that cases of oropharyngeal cancer related to HPV increased from 16.3% to 71.7% between 1984 and 2004. In the same year, data presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting suggested that this virus was overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of oral cancers in Americans under the age of 50.
“Adolescents don’t think oral sex is something to worry about. They view it as a way to have intimacy without having ‘sex’,” said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. She was part of the group of researchers who presented at the annual meeting.
Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of health information, suggested taking heed. “HPV is an extremely common virus. Practicing safer sex may reduce the risk of getting or passing on HPV, but condoms won’t stop infections completely.”