Oral sex may be linked to head, neck cancers

Medical professionals have noted a worrisome uptick in the incidence of certain head and neck cancers.  In recent medical research, conducted in the US, experts have even linked the trend to the rise in the popularity of fellatio and cunnilingus, oral sex, over the past few decades.

According to a newly released study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, there has been an overall decline in the incidence of head and neck cancers over the past 25 years, but there has been a shift in the distribution of these cancers toward a particular type known as oral squamous cell carcinomas (OSCCs), and a younger demographic.  These particular cancers, OSCCs, have been shown to be associated with the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is believed to cause cancer.

Several researchers suggested that the evolving sexual behaviours of people – having sex earlier, more partners, more oral sex partners – are contributing to the new epidemic of cancerous cells in the throat, tonsils and base of the tongue.

In the study, researchers concluded that since HPV infections occur commonly and are usually cleared within 18 months, thus HPV infection should not be a cause for concern among monogamous couples with a rich and varied sex life as long as the sexual system remains closed and other immune compromising factors are not present.

But what if you’re not among the “monogamous couple with a rich and varied sex life,” as expressed in the study, are you at risk?

In the US alone, researchers have found 60 to 70 per cent of all tonsil cancers are HPV-related.

In a 2007 New England Journal of Medicine study, people with head and neck cancers who tested positive for oral HPV infections were more likely to have had multiple vaginal and oral sex partners.

While this speculation of the association of HPV and oral sex has caught on in the popular press, experts still say it’s too early to be definitive.  However the link between HPV and head and neck cancers is indisputable.

TIP: Perhaps, the best practice, would be to use protection when you “go down” on someone next time.


Rosenquist SE. Is oral sex really a dangerous carcinogen? Let’s take a closer look. J Sex Med 2012;9:2224–2232.

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