February 20th, 2011
02:04 PM ET

Yes, oral sex is sex, and it can boost cancer risk

Here's a crucial message for teens: Oral sex carries many of the same risks as vaginal sex, including human papilloma virus, or HPV. And HPV may now be overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of oral cancers in America in people under age 50.

"Adolescents don’t think oral sex is something to worry about," said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. "They view it as a way to have intimacy without having 'sex.'"

Halpern-Felsher and other researchers presented the latest information about the risks of contracting an HPV infection Sunday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting.

The latest data suggest that 64% of oropharynx cancers - growing in the middle part of the throat - in the United States are caused by HPV, which is more than tobacco causes, said Maura Gillison of Ohio State University. And as the number of partners on whom you have performed oral sex goes up, the risk of oropharnyx cancer goes up.

About 37,000 people per year receive a diagnosis of  oral cancer, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation.

Just about everyone has had at least one of the 130 strains of HPV. The vaccines currently available, Gardasil and Cervarix, only protect against a few of them. But not all of the strains are cancer-causing. Certain types cause warts on the hands and feet that are benign.

About 5% of cancers worldwide are caused by HPV, and some turn up in some surprising places. A University of Washington study found that some men carry HPV 26 under their fingernails, which can lead to a form of cancer called digital squamous cell carcinoma. Proper hand-washing can help prevent this from happening, said Dr. Diane Harper, leading HPV researcher at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.

But this isn't nearly as common as HPV causing cancer in other areas of the body, such as the oral cavity and the cervix.

In the countries that have cervical cancer screening, the prevalence of cervical cancer is five times lower than in other countries, indicating that the testing is effective, Harper said.

Why HPV causes cancer in some people and not others is still mysterious. Studies of the cervix have found that 70% of infections resolve by themselves within one year, and 90% within two years. It's that remaining 10% that actually turn into more serious infections, and 5% lead to treatable precancerous lesions, Harper said.

Two well-established mechanisms of prevention in terms of sexually transmitted HPV are condom usage and circumcision, although neither completely eliminates the risk, Harper said.

A large ongoing study called HITCH is examining questions of HPV transmission and infection in greater detail. So far, it's found that couples can "ping-pong" HPV back and forth to each other, which is one reason  that the virus may take so long to clear naturally.

As for getting HPV from kissing, that's not clear, and there isn't enough data to say anything about it yet, Harper said.

It's very hard to get teens to listen to abstinence messages about oral sex, or to get them to use any kind of barrier method for these behaviors, Halpern-Felsher said. And since any risk factor under 50% sounds low to a very young person, throwing these precise statistics at them most likely won't make a difference.

But parents should have honest conversations with their teenagers about oral sex, Halpern-Felsher said. Tell them that the consequences of HPV may not happen right away, and while the risks may not be huge, they are significant. Potential long-term outcomes of cancer are quite concerning.

soundoff (356 Responses)
  1. Ramon F Herrera

    Insert Obligatory Monica joke here.

    February 20, 2011 at 16:07 | Report abuse |
  2. Ramon F Herrera

    Ryan O'Neal was a contributor, as well.

    February 20, 2011 at 16:09 | Report abuse |
  3. Brad

    See dogs are smarter than people.....they don't smoke and the self suck!

    February 20, 2011 at 16:09 | Report abuse |
  4. BP

    Is it still safe to nibble on her cute toes?

    February 20, 2011 at 16:09 | Report abuse |
    • enricorosan

      No, it is not safe. You could still get oral cancer because the HPV virus is hiding under her toe nails. --XD

      February 20, 2011 at 16:22 | Report abuse |
  5. yup

    About 95 percent of all oral cancers occur in persons older than 40, and the average age at the time of diagnosis is about 60.

    February 20, 2011 at 16:09 | Report abuse |
  6. enricorosan

    I have been married to my wife for over 20 years now and I have never kissed her....THANK GOD ! !

    February 20, 2011 at 16:10 | Report abuse |
  7. D. Vitter

    I'm in big trouble now.

    February 20, 2011 at 16:11 | Report abuse |
  8. fafafooie

    please, don't want to lose my head

    February 20, 2011 at 16:12 | Report abuse |
  9. Zeke2112

    "One more reason to remain monogamous........."

    You DO realize that monogamous means one partner at a time, right? You could have 50 one-night-stands with no strings attached, and you're still monogamous.

    Kids these days!

    February 20, 2011 at 16:12 | Report abuse |
  10. PM

    How is this news? HPV has long been linked with various cancers

    February 20, 2011 at 16:14 | Report abuse |
  11. chris

    Like anything, moderation is key. Next hand jobs lead to what...?? spontaneous combustion for both parties?

    February 20, 2011 at 16:17 | Report abuse |
  12. inkd tx chick

    if we cut out all the things in life that cause cancer then we will all die of self inflicted gunshot wounds. i would never deny my man what blows his mind 😉

    February 20, 2011 at 16:18 | Report abuse |
  13. jsyk

    man, every thing now'a days can give you cancer..

    we can have no funn

    February 20, 2011 at 16:19 | Report abuse |
  14. jim


    February 20, 2011 at 16:23 | Report abuse |
  15. Richard Allen

    I knew oral was too good to be true.

    February 20, 2011 at 16:24 | Report abuse |
  16. ted

    show me something that doesnt cause cancer and i will you a market that hasnt been reached yet.

    February 20, 2011 at 16:28 | Report abuse |
  17. Pulpop

    There are people who claim that smoking does no harm and that studies proving the contrary are rediculous.
    Want to apply the same strategy here?

    February 20, 2011 at 16:29 | Report abuse |
  18. Andrew

    Don't care

    February 20, 2011 at 16:30 | Report abuse |
  19. eyesnheart

    What this article does not say is if you are a lesbian and sleep with women who have never slept with men ...what is the potential for getting HPV.

    The answer is zero. Of course you have to be sure both parties have never slept with men...tricky and not sure I would trust someone without being tested.

    February 20, 2011 at 16:30 | Report abuse |
  20. Kevin

    We're all dying anyways.

    February 20, 2011 at 16:30 | Report abuse |

    Now guys have to have the guilt of giving others cancer... great! haha

    February 20, 2011 at 16:31 | Report abuse |
  22. goss

    Lots of jokes with this one...but all I will say is that it's a risk worth taking. 🙂

    February 20, 2011 at 16:35 | Report abuse |
  23. michelle

    everyone dies of something hit me with ur best shot.

    February 20, 2011 at 16:38 | Report abuse |
  24. Cactuscrusader

    Is it really necessary to scare the crap out of teenagers? I have given BJ's pleeeelenty o' times over the years and am totally healthy. This is just a company scaring people into getting their kids to take Gardisil or something which has been known to cause paralysis in people. I'll take the risk of a BJ over the risk of Big Pharma any day.

    February 20, 2011 at 16:38 | Report abuse |
    • Patricia

      you're healthy *now* but you have yet see the long term effects – the incubation period can take years.

      February 20, 2011 at 17:11 | Report abuse |
    • timetraveler

      Yeah... I'm with you. I'll take some risks too. Where do you live?

      February 20, 2011 at 19:33 | Report abuse |
  25. E t

    Cancer is no joke,but damm my girlfriend love tha thing.

    February 20, 2011 at 16:43 | Report abuse |
  26. Randy

    What doesnt cause cancer anymore hell I am not giving it up and not telling the wife about it either.

    February 20, 2011 at 16:44 | Report abuse |
  27. paulbark

    This sucks.

    February 20, 2011 at 16:45 | Report abuse |
  28. RayBear

    Zeke2112, monogamous means a marraige with one spouse.

    February 20, 2011 at 16:48 | Report abuse |
    • Jeff

      Actually the definition of monogamous is "the practice of monogamy."

      But indirectly you are part right. You left off the "at a time" part.
      1. Marriage with only one person at a time. Compare bigamy, polygamy.
      2. Zoology . the practice of having only one mate.
      3. the practice of marrying only once during life.

      February 20, 2011 at 18:08 | Report abuse |
  29. Kenuff

    Hahah!!! Been married for 7 years. No chance of EVER getting throat cancer since oral went out the window right after the wedding.

    February 20, 2011 at 16:52 | Report abuse |
  30. jim

    SHUT UP DUDE!!!!! My wife might see this moron!!

    February 20, 2011 at 16:54 | Report abuse |
  31. Dave

    I don't find anything funny about this. I developed stage 4 squamous cell cancer in my throat several years ago and am lucky to be alive today. The throat surgeon found HPV in my throat and said it will be there for life. Fortunately, once successfully treated the cancer rarely returns. Still, Chemo and radiation are nasty to undergo. Radiation has long term effects such as crumbling teeth and leathery throat for life. If boys and men got the vaccine prescribed for women to prevent cervical cancer the incidence of throat cancer in men would drop significantly

    February 20, 2011 at 16:55 | Report abuse |
  32. Frenchy

    New study shows living will kill you. Go figure.

    February 20, 2011 at 16:55 | Report abuse |
  33. izzy

    lets face it.............EVERYTHING causes cancer so we are all doomed! lol

    February 20, 2011 at 16:55 | Report abuse |
  34. GianCarlo

    Who inspired this the christian right? Cause it has christian zealots written all over it.

    Also now coke gives you Cancer. Whats next open the Bible and reading it will cause blindness and cancer........

    February 20, 2011 at 16:58 | Report abuse |
  35. Rambosky

    Please don't tell me that masturbation as an adolescent might lead to hair growth on my palm !!!! Please don't tell me that living might lead to dying !! Where do they come up with such bogus BS. Get a life and get a real job.

    February 20, 2011 at 16:59 | Report abuse |
  36. Acaraho

    To Zeke2112: your pseudo-definition of monogamous is really a definition of promiscuity.

    February 20, 2011 at 16:59 | Report abuse |
  37. poppy

    My wife wont be hearing about this either. lol

    February 20, 2011 at 17:02 | Report abuse |
  38. Acaraho

    For all you people joking about this article or replying sarcastically, please realize there is such a thing as Karma. Be mindful of what you speak about.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:03 | Report abuse |
  39. David

    Well I guess my wife is going to be the one to blame for my throat looking like a Sarlacc Pit by the time I'm 50, but she's f'n amazing!!

    February 20, 2011 at 17:04 | Report abuse |
  40. Bubblepuppy

    Risk of cancer for a good blau johb? I'll take the chance!!!!

    February 20, 2011 at 17:05 | Report abuse |
  41. Patricia

    I was just hearing about this the other day from my friend who works for the Pacific Cancer Foundation. According to the statistics by the American Cancer Foundation, these throat and neck cancers are occuring more frequently and especially in young males.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:06 | Report abuse |
  42. Tom

    This doctor, Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, will obviously go to great lengths in order to get out of pleasing Mr. Feisher!

    February 20, 2011 at 17:06 | Report abuse |
  43. r

    Well, shut my mouth!

    February 20, 2011 at 17:06 | Report abuse |
  44. Big Guy

    Well....whew...I'm safe then.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:08 | Report abuse |
  45. John

    I guess the story of jerking off can give you harry palms has run its term.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:08 | Report abuse |
  46. austin93

    My ex-wife is a gonner!!

    February 20, 2011 at 17:08 | Report abuse |
  47. Lily

    What a small minded comment. Monogomy is simply having one partner. Their life before you met them, or entered a relationship with them can still impact you. If you marry someone who slept around when they were younger marriage doesn't cleanse their body of disease. Anything they caught prior to entering the relationship can still be passed onto you.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:10 | Report abuse |
  48. Lucas

    I hope all my girlfriends don't read this.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:10 | Report abuse |
  49. RepubtardTeaBagger

    The Republican/Tea Partiers are the cancer of the U.S.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:11 | Report abuse |
    • johnC

      that's because they suck each other off so much

      February 20, 2011 at 17:12 | Report abuse |
  50. Andres Lopez

    This article has now been banished from any computer or laptop in my household. My wife still thinks its great in protein lol

    February 20, 2011 at 17:11 | Report abuse |
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.