The most commonly transmitted STD in the U.S. is human papillomavirus (HPV), and the incidence of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer — head and neck cancer — has more than doubled over the last 20 years. The oncogenic oral HPV virus occurs in 3.5% of adults, but it’s now estimated to be present in 8.5% of men. It causes about 70% of all oropharyngeal squamous cell cancer (OPC), and while the chances of developing the disease are low — about .7% — experts predict that by 2020 oropharyngeal cancer will be more prevalent in the U.S. than cervical cancer. And a new study has found that men who’ve had oral sex with 5 or more partners and are cigarette smokers have a far greater chance of having an HPV-OPC infection than the general population: 14.9%.

The study, published in October in Oxford’s Annals of Oncology, found that men with just one of these factors — either having oral sex with multiple partners or being a smoker — still had an elevated risk of having HPV-OPC, 7.3%, though the study considers this a “medium” level. The study says having 2-4 partners is less risky. Regardless of other studied risk factors, “oncogenic oral HPV prevalence was ‘low’ among those with only ≤1 lifetime oral sexual partner (women = 0.7% and men = 1.7%).”

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(MARCUS HANSSEN)

The study analyzed 2009-2014 data from 13, 089 people, aged 20–69, collected in three U.S. studies:

  • National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES)
  • oropharyngeal cancer cases from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER 18) registry. This study represents about 28% of the U.S. population)
  • oropharyngeal cancer mortality from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS)

If you’re sexually active, what are you to do with this worrying information? The CDC offers this authoritative, though unhelpful, statement about STDs in general: The only way to avoid STDs is to not have vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Still, they do provide some guidelines for infection-averse lovers about avoiding the spread of STDs including human papillomavirus.

For oral sex on the penis:

  • Cover the penis with a non-lubricated latex condom.
  • Use plastic (polyurethane) condoms if you or your partner is allergic to latex.

For oral sex on the vagina or anus:

  • Use a dental dam.
  • Cut open a condom to make a square, and put it between the mouth and the partner’s vagina or anus.