Members of the UNF Health Promotion staff believe the rise in throat cancer can be attributed to a change in our culture’s view of oral sex.
Scientists across the country are finding oral sex causes throat cancer — passing tobacco as the leading cause in the United States. The reason behind this concern for oral sex is the potential infections behind the human papillomavirus (HPV).
HPV has consistently been a topic of concern because it is the same virus that causes cervical cancer. HPV is a common sexually transmitted disease that infects about 40 million people today. There are over 120 different strands of the virus.
According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, 37,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year, and 8,000 will die. These numbers include people who use tobacco as well as those engaging in oral sex. However, people who develop cancer through oral sex are more likely to survive cancer than heavy smokers or drinkers.
According to National Public Radio, Dr. Maura Gillison of Ohio State University said to members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that the human papillomavirus (HPV) causes roughly 64 percent of oropharynxl cancers.
The oropharynx is the part of the throat at the back of the mouth that includes the back third of the tongue, the soft palate, the side and back walls of the throat, and the tonsils.
When it comes to infections transmitted through oral sex, people mainly need to be concerned with HIV, HPV and gonorrhea, said Dr. John Oliver, a UNF adjunct psychology professor who teaches a class called “Human Sexuality.”
Oliver said many studies are focusing on sex between males and females, but he said he believes the virus can be contracted through homosexual or bisexual activity, as well.
“We have to assume the virus is transmitted either way,” Oliver said.
Kendall McCray, a counselor at the UNF Health Promotion department, said many students need to make sure they have condoms with them at all times, even if they are not planning on having sex. He said while oral sex is a potential risk, it is not as risky as intercourse for contracting STIs.
Ashley Ballard, coordinator of health education at Health Promotion, said many women do not know they have HPV, since some strains can have no visible symptoms or warts. Ballard also said it’s important to realize HPV can be spread through skin-on-skin contact.
Oliver said when two people engage in oral sex, the risk of contracting HPV is lower if bodily fluids are not ingested. Oliver said that because the vagina naturally has bodily fluids, the risk of contracting HPV through male-to-female oral sex is higher.Thus, partners engaging in male-to-male sexual activity involving oral sex may be at a potentially lower risk of HPV contraction through oral sex considering the ingestion of bodily fluids can be more easily avoided. Lesbians may be at a potentially higher risk for HPV infection.
Oliver said even middle schoolers are beginning to engage in oral sex because they do not believe it is actually sex.
“They get to have sex without having sex,” Oliver said. “It doesn’t seem to carry the same moral weight.”
The key factor in determining a person’s risk of HPV infection, Oliver said, is by the number of sexual partners the person has had in their lifetime. Oliver has researched the likelihood of STI contraction in the past and has found that by having three sex partners, a person has increased their likelihood of contraction by 30 times.
“By the time you’ve had your fifth partner, you’ve literally had sex with 400 people,” Oliver said.
There are ways to help prevent HPV contraction. There are prescribed vaccines, such as Gardasil, that can be used to prevent certain strands of the HPV virus. Males between the ages of nine and 26 years old can use Gardasil, as well.
There are several strains of the HPV virus, but strains 16 and 18 are the most problematic, and strain 16 accounts for 90 percent of all HPV-related cancers, Oliver said. HPV also causes approximately 90 percent of cases of anal cancer.
In a monogamous relationship, Oliver said oral sex is healthy and acts as a “wonderful variation” for couples.
Dr. John Oliver and members of UNF Health Promotion provide tips to help prevent HPV contraction:
-Use oral condoms. “Fruity-flavored condoms” are useful in providing pleasure and staying safe, Oliver said.
-Use dental dams. These can help prevent skin-to-skin contact during oral sex.
-Talk to your partner. Makes sure you and your partner are comfortable with talking about oral sex and the risks of Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) transmission.
-Get tested for HPV as well as other STIs. It is better to be safe and know your status.
-Make sure to get regular pap smears through your gynecologist. Doctors can run HPV screens as well as discuss vaccination options.
-Brush your teeth or floss before performing oral sex. Brushing your teeth or flossing separates the gums from the tooth and increases the risk of contracting an infection during oral sex.
-Ingest bodily fluids. Ingesting bodily fluids during oral sex can increase the risk of contracting infections, including HPV, HIV and gonorrhea.
-Lose track of your drinks at parties. Date rape drugs can lead to potential risks for STIs.
-Don’t always take your partners word for it. Make sure to see documentation of testing that shows that your partner is clean.