Performing oral sex may increase the chance of cancer in men

A new study links multiple sex partners and smoking to head and neck, or oropharyngeal, cancer.

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(JOSH JANSSEN)

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%)."

(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.
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