Growing up, I thought oral sex just meant the possibility of mouth and neck strain, given the positions (and the duration of said positions) this type of sexual activity requires. But it turns getting on your knees, or laying beside your partner, or squatting over your trick could also kill you. Scientists have spotted a link between the rise in oral sex among young people and a spike in head and neck cancers, triggered, researchers presume, by the increased transfer of HPV, that nasty little STD that we already know can lead to cervical and anal cancer.
According to Dr. William Lydiatt, professor and chief of head and neck surgical oncology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, the overall incidence of head and neck cancers is going down, largely because fewer people are smoking (tobacco and drinking are the major traditional risk factors). But the incidence of cancers of the tonsil and base of the tongue have been going up over the past decades, he said. And those are the ones that are more likely to test positive for HPV.
“It’s gotten to the point now where 60 to 70 percent of all tonsil cancers in the U.S. are HPV-related,” Lydiatt said.
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.
Which means what exactly? That we either cut down on the oral sex, and even the french kissing, or risk developing HPV-related cancers? Ya know, I thought keeping myself clear of mono in college was an accomplishment, but apparently I’ve got all sorts of new fun things to worry about now.