August 9, 2010
Few studies have established a causal link between oral sex and human papillomavirus-related head and neck cancers, although several recent U.S. and European studies have noted an increase in such cancers. Oral sex is one means by which HPV can be transmitted, note public health officials.
"A third of head and neck cancers we see nowadays are HPV," said Dr. David Brizel, an oncologist at Duke University specializing in head and neck cancers.
Smoking and heavy drinking were typically the biggest risk factors for these cancers, Brizel said. But the latest increases in HPV-related head and neck cancers have occurred as smoking rates declined. "That's worth noting," he said. "A large portion of these are in people who never used tobacco."
"Are you saying that oral sex is more common now than 30 years ago? I don't think so," said a skeptical Dr. Peter Cartwright, a gynecologic specialist at Duke.
Behavioral research by the Guttmacher Institute has not found any uptick in oral sex in recent decades, said Rebecca Wind, a spokesperson for the sexual and reproductive health group. In a federal survey conducted earlier this decade among those ages 25-44, 90 percent of men and 88 percent of women reported having engaged in oral sex with an opposite-sex partner.
People might be having sex at an earlier age and having more partners, suggested a 2007 New England Journal of Medicine study. Those who had at least six different oral sex partners were at increased risk of HPV-related head and neck cancers, the researchers found.
"The widespread oral sexual practices among adolescents may be a contributing factor in this increase," the study authors wrote.