June 6, 2023

Oral sex is the X-rated culprit behind a wave of throat cancers emerging in the US, fueling a so-called ‘epidemic’.

According to Hisham Mehanna, a professor at the Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences at the University of Birmingham, the human papillomavirus is to blame.

“For oropharyngeal cancer, the most important risk factor is the number of lifetime sexual partners, especially oral sex,” he wrote for Conversation Tuesday.

Cases of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer, a form of throat cancer, rose 1.3% annually in women and 2.8% in men between 2015 and 2019, according to the American Cancer Society.

The CDC estimates that 70% of oropharyngeal cancers – affecting the tonsils, base of the tongue and back of the throat – are caused by HPV infection in the US.

Previous studies have shown that multiple sexual partners can increase the risk of contracting HPV and, in turn, developing mouth or throat cancer.

In 2021, researchers found that people with 10 or more oral sex partners were more than four times more likely to develop HPV-related cancer of the mouth and throat.

Digital image of person with sore throat
According to the CDC, HPV is responsible for an estimated 70% of oropharyngeal cancers.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41% of teens ages 15 to 19 engage in oral sex. Young people aged 15 to 24 were responsible for nearly half of the 26 million new STI infections in 2018.

HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs), affecting an estimated 42 million Americans. In fact, according to the CDC, it’s so common that “almost all sexually active men and women get the virus at some point in their lives.”

Usually harmless – many people clear the virus on their own without complications – the virus can lead to cervical cancer or oropharyngeal cancer in some cases.

Man with sore throat
Symptoms include a persistent sore throat, difficulty swallowing or opening the mouth, difficulty moving the tongue, and lumps in the mouth, throat, and neck.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

“However, a small number of people are unable to get rid of the infection, perhaps because of a defect in some aspect of their immune system,” writes Mehanna. “In those patients, the virus can multiply continuously and, over time, integrate at random positions in the host’s DNA, some of which can cause the host cells to become cancerous.”

A British study found that the country’s women-only vaccination regimen could significantly reduce HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers. Currently, the HPV vaccine is aimed at preventing reproductive cancers, although the CDC said it offers protection against the virus strains that also cause oropharyngeal cancer.

Current guidelines in the US advise 11- and 12-year-olds to receive two doses of the HPV vaccine, but individuals ages 9 to 26 are approved to receive it.

Yet only about 54% of adolescents have received the vaccine as of 2020.

“More than 90% of HPV-associated cancers could be prevented with HPV vaccination, but vaccine uptake remains suboptimal,” study author Eric Adjei Boakye said in a statement. His research for the American Association for Cancer Research, published this month, exposed the lack of knowledge surrounding HPV.