Is oral sex 'safe'?

Sarah-Belle Murphy
Monday, March 29, 2010
Image: Getty
Not everything you hear about the birds and the bees in the playground turns out to be true. In fact you can pretty much discount all of it; you can't catch boys' cooties from a kiss, you won't get catch an STD by holding hands and oral sex will not end in pregnancy.

That said, the latter may have more consequences than we had previously imagined, if research into HPV-related neck and head cancers is anything to go by.

According to an editorial published in the British Medical Journal, cases of a particular form of head and neck cancer called oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC) have risen sharply in the last few years and appear to be linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV).

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The study found the risk of developing OSCC was linked to a history of six or more sexual partners, four or more oral sex partners, and, for men, sexual intercourse at an earlier age.

"Sexual transmission of HPV — primarily through orogenital intercourse — might be the reason for the increase in incidence of HPV related oropharyngeal carcinoma," wrote the researchers, led by Hisham Mehanna from the Institute of Head and Neck Studies at Britain's University Hospital Coventry.

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Research carried out in 2007 by the Johns Hopkins University's Kimmel Cancer Centre also linked HPV with throat cancer, when it was previously believed that cancers found in the upper throat could be attributed to smoking or alcohol consumption. In the study, HPV-positive cancer patients tended to have a more extensive sexual history than those with other forms.

The virus

The virus at the root of most cervical cancer cases, HPV, is on the rise and around 6000 new cases are reported in the US each year. At least 50 percent of the population will have some type of HPV in their lifetime. Most types are harmless however and go away on their own.

HPV is thought to have taken hold decades ago during the time baby boomers came of age — and as result is now showing up predominately men and women older than 50.

The exact reason for this is still unclear but there is mounting evidence that the rise may be linked to the evolution of sexual practices changed in the swinging 1960s and '70s. In a landmark study published in 1994 by University of Chicago researchers, oral sex was found to be a more common intimate act among people born in the 1950s than in previous generations.

The theory

So why is oral sex a risk factor? According to medical experts, the virus thrives on the skin and can be transmitted via skin-to-skin contact. In the same way intercourse is aligned with cervical cancer, oral sex can be seen as a link to throat, head and neck cancer.

Medical experts have warned that the notion of oral sex being 'safe' is no longer the case.

The answer?

Two vaccines, Cervarix, made by GlaxoSmithKline, and Gardasil, made by Merck & Co can prevent HPV, which causes virtually all cases of cervical cancer, the second most common cancer in women worldwide.

Researchers believe that the widespread use of the HPV vaccine, which lessens the risk of cervical cancer, may also offer protection from other forms of HPV-positive cancer.

For more information on the HPV vaccine, consult your GP.

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