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. sockpuppet

    no but if you have oral s** with a clean partner (I mean clean as in medically tested and found to be clean) whether that's your spouse or long-term partner, you are at NO risk for cancer from oral s**!!!! It's a ridiculous leap to make ORAL DOES NOT EQUAL CANCER! HPV can cause cancer, and HPV can be caught from oral. It's like saying ANAL = DEATH, because one way you can get AIDS is from anal, and if you get AIDS you might die. But let's just skip a few steps and be stupid about it.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:11 | Report abuse |
  2. Irene

    That's hilarious! lol

    February 20, 2011 at 17:12 | Report abuse |
  3. jayman419

    Why don't you adjust the keywords that get moderated when you're topic involves certain things? Took me 11 tries to get this thing through. We can't have an adult conversation about medical science now? Post follows.l

    Why not just say [moderated] will give boys [moderated] cancer? That might change behavior. And it's just as likely.

    Among those ages 15-49, only one in four Americans has NOT had an HPV infection. About 80% of people who have had as few as four [moderated] partners have been infected with HPV. There are only an estimated 12,000 cases of HPV-related cancers in the United States a year, and almost all of those cases involve HPV infections that go untreated for years. There are only a handful of the more than 100 types of HPV that show any link to cancer in the first place.

    If you want to warn kids about the dangers of [moderated], why not give them honest information about it? They're not stupid, you know. They have access to the same internet that you do.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:13 | Report abuse |
    • jayman419

      12,000 cases out of a population of 300,000,000, 80 percent of whom have the virus.

      = 1 chance in 20,000.

      February 20, 2011 at 17:15 | Report abuse |
  4. dab

    smells like bs to me. oral will give you cancer. lol.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:16 | Report abuse |
  5. Jerry

    Yes just like they demonized any use of alcohol, saying " It causes cancer,diabetes and heart disease. along with " drinking causes high blood pressure." What are most scientists saying now? "People who drink are 4 times less likely to suffer from Rheumatoid arthritis. and it helps protect against type2 diabetes because alcohol reduces inflammation and inhibits the livers ability to produce as much sugar." Then they go on to say "Alcohol is good for the heart, and reduces blood pressure by dilation of the blood vessels." Then there has been all this talk for the last 15 years about dangers of trans fats. What did a scientific study show just 2 weeks ago? "There appears to be a enzyme in trans fats that helps protect against diabetes type 2." Then the rebuttal of skin cancer (Melanomas). " It appears that some people benefit from the UV rays of the sun as it destroys Cancer cells in some people. So staying out of the sun can give you Cancer to. How many people out here have been duped by the "Get your Flu shot" propaganda? Take a serious honest look at the people around you, and all them children that were forced to get them vaccines that still catch the cold and Flu every year that always get there Flu shots. If you are honest you will see that more people than ever still get sick from the cold and Flu.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:19 | Report abuse |
  6. Edward Stack Sr


    February 20, 2011 at 17:20 | Report abuse |
  7. micho

    I am a dead Man !

    February 20, 2011 at 17:20 | Report abuse |
  8. Edward Stack Sr

    Gargle with Listerine...................

    February 20, 2011 at 17:22 | Report abuse |
  9. psbklyn

    HPV is everywhere. It was a factor in Michael Douglas's throat cancer, and I think it's quite possible that it also was in Farrah Fawcett's anal cancer. The problem/reality is, even if your warts have been treated and are no longer visible, the virus remains in your body, in your cells - you can get an abnormal pap smear out of the blue from something you did years earlier. It's estimated that at least 75% of all people have some form of HPV by the time they're 60 (I've seen slightly different percentages, but this seems about the avg). So just eyeballing someone's genitals gives no indication of whether they're HPV positive or not.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:23 | Report abuse |
  10. Mihoda

    I've no doubt that the day the last vaccine comes out for the last STD that the jesus freak crowd will still find a way to rationalize not giving it to their daughters.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:26 | Report abuse |
  11. David M.

    That's it. I am not reading the news any more. Especially since I read that alcohol is not good for you. Now this. I quit reading.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:26 | Report abuse |
  12. ryan

    it's probably best if you don't further discourage girls from partaking in this activity. you may have well ruined it for everybody.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:26 | Report abuse |
  13. ricky

    The next thing they will be telling us..OREOS are bad for your health.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:27 | Report abuse |
  14. Jerry

    64 percent of whom? This so called 'study" does not say if any actual people were used directly to take part in this "STUDY." This is somebody who wrote up some report a case study that didn't actually have any active participants. One of them ' I just looked at the figures and came up arbitrarily with some numbers." This is what the CDC does with the figures they come up with for Flu deaths. They don't actually have any figures just somebody makes a estimation. People this is junk science.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:28 | Report abuse |
  15. Gabe

    Instead of postin all these comments, which by the way are hilarious, you all need to call your stock broker and tell him to get you some of those pharm stocks!

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

    Aw Bill I'm so sorry. We quit drinking and smoking and now this. Well I guess I want to live forever so I'm getting out the pruning shears. Does anyone in the world really believe they could possibly study that or come to any real conclusion about it. Where's the "control" (sorry) group? where's the number's? How many people did they follow around everyday? How many are they sure didn't smoke, drink, live in a polluted city, lived to long or have cancer in their family history? But somehow they did. What kind of moron scientists wanted to ask the question anyway? I hope it was Gov. funded. Was it you Bill? Tell the truth.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:29 | Report abuse |
  17. bookenz

    Honey can I have a b* low job?

    NO, not until you take a test!

    February 20, 2011 at 17:29 | Report abuse |
  18. pam

    i know thats right JAKE.. nothing like it

    February 20, 2011 at 17:30 | Report abuse |
  19. Cindy

    Oh well. Everybody's gotta die from something ...

    February 20, 2011 at 17:32 | Report abuse |
  20. Goat

    haha, this headline reminds me of all those moral girls in high school that'd do anything but "traditional" because "it's not really sx if it's not pentetratio".

    February 20, 2011 at 17:32 | Report abuse |
  21. Gena

    I'll take the risks. I'm not willing to give that up.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:33 | Report abuse |
  22. MrMailman

    Do men increase cancer risk or do women? I think women do, all they do is receive, receive and receive.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:37 | Report abuse |
  23. Ladybird

    "some men carry HPV 26 under their fingernails" Sounds as if fellas need to learn how to wash their hands before leaving the bathroom.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:37 | Report abuse |
  24. Mesohoony

    I'll take my chances.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:40 | Report abuse |
  25. Planet Earth

    The bottom line is: Being alive is causing cancer.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:40 | Report abuse |
  26. sik

    Is there any way to block this story,my wife might see this.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:42 | Report abuse |
  27. Jim Jimerson

    Man...Thats a hard nut to swallow

    February 20, 2011 at 17:45 | Report abuse |
  28. Thomas

    B.S. need I say more?

    February 20, 2011 at 17:45 | Report abuse |
  29. caesar

    Let me guess...
    these researchers didn't get stimulus money(?).

    February 20, 2011 at 17:45 | Report abuse |
  30. I am

    It figures a woman would author this. Womens Lib has to ruin it for men. You know what BJs prevent? Two black eyes! The reason why excessive causes cancer is because of the oral fixation is accompanied by smoking. Don't forget the lurking variables!

    February 20, 2011 at 17:47 | Report abuse |
  31. shawn

    Stay classy CNN!

    February 20, 2011 at 17:48 | Report abuse |
  32. Elogle

    Why are we focusing on teens? I would like to point out to professor Halpern-Felsher that people of all ages can use this information. I'm 23 and it's interesting. That seems like agism.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:48 | Report abuse |
  33. Nina2

    First my cigs, then my coffee, now this!

    February 20, 2011 at 17:50 | Report abuse |
  34. George

    Yes kiddies, take heed. And don't forget that masturbation causes hair to grow in the palms of your hands, and can also make you go blind and insane. My secretary typed this for me.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:50 | Report abuse |
  35. RC

    What a load of crap!

    February 20, 2011 at 17:50 | Report abuse |
  36. Frank

    Great something else we can't do....I'm removing access to cnn.com before my girlfriend gets home. D**M YOU CANCER!!

    February 20, 2011 at 17:56 | Report abuse |
  37. GrrBehr

    You know what, enough of this... Everything causes cancer... People have been engaged in this for MILLENIA, and no one died of cancer from oral. What, people do it now MORE than in 1700s? Are you kidding? You wanna find REAL causes for cancer, look at water and air quality, pesticides, the quality of our food. And enough of this alarmist bs.

    February 20, 2011 at 17:56 | Report abuse |
    • jmsdh

      That's what I've been thinking about. Oral sax isn't some invention out of the 1960s, you know. Do we know how long the virus has been around? Maybe there have been even more virulent ones in history transmitted the same way. Seems like people will live, and sometimes die, with these conditions regardless. Pre-20th century Europeans knew very well about several STDs and that didn't stop them from producing children. Wouldn't be here to talk about this study if they didn't take the risks.

      February 20, 2011 at 19:32 | Report abuse |
  38. cReamyg00dnesS

    So... Can I lower my chances of contracting HPV if I spit instead of swallow?

    February 20, 2011 at 17:57 | Report abuse |
  39. Katie

    How is this article ridiculous?? Because you don't want to admit that your behavior could be putting you and your partner(s) at risk so you'll just laugh it off? Almost everyone gets some form of HPV, and some strains cause cancer (which is not a joking matter) so I think articles like this are entirely relevant and important.

    February 20, 2011 at 18:02 | Report abuse |
  40. EJ

    What a bunch of crap!!!

    February 20, 2011 at 18:02 | Report abuse |
  41. cReamyg00dnesS

    Has A.C. gotten his monthly checkup yet??? hehe!

    February 20, 2011 at 18:03 | Report abuse |
  42. Rheinheart

    I guess I know what my wife is going to die from...giggity.

    February 20, 2011 at 18:04 | Report abuse |
  43. demolitionpuppy

    Warning: Surgeon General says BJ's will kill you!!!...

    February 20, 2011 at 18:06 | Report abuse |
  44. Lemming

    Personally, I will wait for Apple to come out with a new device or app that prevents HPV transmission. Once they do, I know CNN will be all over it like white on rice. Then I will feel more confident in the bedroom.

    February 20, 2011 at 18:06 | Report abuse |
  45. Katie

    I don't understand why people think this article is stupid. Are they in denial? Do they not care about their health or that of their partners? Yea ignorance is bliss, but it's also... ignorant. There's nothing alarmist about this but just simple fact, that a lot of people seem to not want to admit.

    February 20, 2011 at 18:08 | Report abuse |
  46. gc

    If the headline was McDonald's french fries or Coca-Cola cause cancer this story would never have seen the light of day. This is the biggest load of crap I have ever read. Exceptionally slow news day. Camille Grammer, REALLY, CNN HLN ?

    February 20, 2011 at 18:08 | Report abuse |
  47. ASHLEY E.

    Cancer any Many people die from it
    Each so it a joke to me no because how. family members have suffered from it so grow and listen b4 its to late
    Ashley Emanuel
    Chas sc

    February 20, 2011 at 18:09 | Report abuse |
  48. MXD

    Sure, oral now gives you cancer. But what a way to go.

    February 20, 2011 at 18:09 | Report abuse |
  49. cd

    The real question is "what would Mrs Obama do"!

    February 20, 2011 at 18:09 | Report abuse |
  50. demolitionpuppy

    Those truth.com commercials are going to be kina awkward to watch or not...

    February 20, 2011 at 18:10 | 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.