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. Richard

    Can they find anything else to worry about. As for me I am going to enjoy life, not live it worrying about what could be. I'm sure I have a better chance of getting taken out, while driving home from work.

    February 20, 2011 at 18:11 | Report abuse |
  2. someguy

    Then I will gladly give someone mouth cancer.
    Genesis 3:16!!! Read it!!!

    February 20, 2011 at 18:15 | Report abuse |
  3. Mark

    Hog wash and total propaganda.

    February 20, 2011 at 18:15 | Report abuse |
  4. MilkDoesABodyBad

    Sweet! Now I have an excuse to get right to business!

    February 20, 2011 at 18:17 | Report abuse |
  5. Jo

    Austin93, You made me fall out of my chair. Too funny. I was bummed myself.

    February 20, 2011 at 18:30 | Report abuse |
  6. DrVonBrain

    If I get her to just spit, is that okay?

    February 20, 2011 at 18:31 | Report abuse |
  7. richard b

    Where's the discussion about using the vaccine on men. That would help women too.

    February 20, 2011 at 18:31 | Report abuse |
  8. Link

    lord i'm coming home.......................

    February 20, 2011 at 18:32 | Report abuse |
  9. mulkie

    do you have to swallow????

    February 20, 2011 at 18:36 | Report abuse |
    • Eric

      PMS, HIV, STD, GOP, KKK, HPV, CNN – how come everything evil comes in three-letter acronyms?

      February 20, 2011 at 19:38 | Report abuse |
  10. kells

    he dats has ears shud listen b4 u get caught up with cancer

    February 20, 2011 at 18:36 | Report abuse |
  11. Maria

    it seems like everything causes cancer these days, maybe whipping my butt with toilet paper will give me cancer as well

    February 20, 2011 at 18:36 | Report abuse |
  12. Roland


    February 20, 2011 at 18:39 | Report abuse |
    • Tim

      I say this as a Christian; these sort of nonsense posts by people like you, are annoying. Living your life one way is one thing, expecting or pretending that everyone will be great or good things will come in time in this life, or any type of Karma crap, is just not true.

      February 20, 2011 at 19:03 | Report abuse |
  13. Roland


    February 20, 2011 at 18:40 | Report abuse |
  14. Forever Alone

    well, it looks like I have nothing to worry about then.

    February 20, 2011 at 18:41 | Report abuse |
  15. prppup

    Yea! now can add that excuse to not wanting to give my husband a hummer. I hate choking now can tell him I don't want to get cancer of the throat

    February 20, 2011 at 18:46 | Report abuse |
  16. Tim

    I'm gonna get me soooo much cancer!

    February 20, 2011 at 18:48 | Report abuse |
    • Tim

      I meant "give". Oh, crap, I've been outted, and I'm not even gay!

      February 20, 2011 at 18:56 | Report abuse |
    • Tim

      Seriously though, my understanding is that if you're with someone that's loyal/faithful and you're both clean, you don't have to worry about stuff like this (not the more serious one's/cancer causing one's), but perhaps I'm wrong. Still, everything causes cancer anymore (certain fish, water, and air, not to mention eating pesticides on fruits and vegetables, meats, etc.). I don't smoke or drink or do drugs, and I try and eat with the intention of fueling my body with the right stuff, but you just can't live like without some risks, simply by the action of living. I'll take the risks (especially this one).

      February 20, 2011 at 19:00 | Report abuse |
  17. Prezence

    "what did that article say honey?" "nothin babe just go back down" lol you know what they say whatever feels good is either illegal, fattening or bad. But I seriously wonder how scientists figure out this ****. Like "Hey you have throat cancer, have you been sucking anything lately?"

    February 20, 2011 at 18:52 | Report abuse |
  18. seriously

    Cancer is an inevitable process. Entropy is defined as order moving in the direction towards chaos. Your body attempts to keep order by having checkpoints during cell growth to destroy cells that are not operating properly. Everything in this world, including just the basis of physics wants your body to go towards chaos. Your body has to fight this trend and eventually either something mutates or lack of nutrient or energy leads to your own cells growing out of control. If this growth affects organ function and becomes malignant then this growth is known as cancer. So you either have cancer, will have cancer, or will die before you had a chance to develop it. Cancer is not something you can catch, it is only something you can lessen your risk and delay development by being aware of all the risks and doing your best to make educated decisions, such as talking to your partner about alternatives if you pose a risk. But anything, even just your existence, can cause cancer.

    February 20, 2011 at 18:53 | Report abuse |
  19. iceaxdave

    Well, blow me down!

    February 20, 2011 at 18:58 | Report abuse |
  20. BJ King

    Well I guess I'm a "dead man walking" then !! I sure am not going to give up get a good old fashion BJ !!!

    February 20, 2011 at 18:58 | Report abuse |
  21. who cares

    You people are too funny!!!!

    February 20, 2011 at 18:58 | Report abuse |
  22. Leonard

    THAT SUCKS!!!!

    February 20, 2011 at 18:59 | Report abuse |
  23. Dana V

    Brings a whole new definition to "cancer stick" ;0)

    February 20, 2011 at 19:00 | Report abuse |
  24. Mr. Christie

    "No honey, there isn't a SINGLE interesting article on cnn.com today" -Me for the next week.

    February 20, 2011 at 19:01 | Report abuse |
  25. hahaha

    did anyone else see his name was B. Clinton?

    February 20, 2011 at 19:03 | Report abuse |
  26. Brandi

    Okay ... I'll make a puritanical comment. Articles like this, shows like "Teen Mom" etc. kind of make me sad that we've lost so much of our morality in the last 50-ish years. Once that piece is gone from cultural norms, the pendulum doesn't swing back to conservatism. This is not to say that everyting was better "in the good ol' days", but what I believe was "better" was a common sense of decency, ie: not sleeping around, abstinence until marriage was considered a virtue, getting drunk and acting like an idiot didn't make someone a multi-million dollar reality star, men and women showed manners and respect to each other, etc. Sigh. Kind of sad to see it disappear in my lifetime, and I'm only 40. Okay, My "grandma" post is over.

    February 20, 2011 at 19:04 | Report abuse |
    • John Not

      50 years ago was the 60's man. The start of the se xual revolution. The make love not war era. But wait, You're a grandma at 40? That's was like the norm 100 years ago... Unless you live in a trailer park.

      February 20, 2011 at 19:41 | Report abuse |
  27. Mike dallas texas

    just like mom always told you , brush , brush , brush , floss ,floss , floss and rinse after every meal !

    February 20, 2011 at 19:04 | Report abuse |
  28. M. Lewinsky

    Well now it's true. Everything really does cancer.

    February 20, 2011 at 19:05 | Report abuse |
  29. Robert

    Likewise!!! hahahah

    February 20, 2011 at 19:13 | Report abuse |
  30. T Dick

    Please take this article down before my girl friend gets home....thanks

    February 20, 2011 at 19:13 | Report abuse |
  31. steve

    this is totally rediculous

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

    I'm 23 year old male and im telling you right now this STD thing is blown way out of proportion....I dont know a single person that has one or has had one. My friends and I are pretty open about things...and I mean open.

    February 20, 2011 at 19:20 | Report abuse |
    • Derek

      thank you for your scientific and well-researched opinion. I guess we should all ignore confirmed statistics, because as you and your buddies are clean, that means there isn't a problem. Moron.

      February 20, 2011 at 19:31 | Report abuse |
  33. Kay

    This article is being dishonest. It says 37,000 people are diagnosed yearly but yet it doesn't say how many people actually die from it yearly. Why wouldn't they add that number into the article? I'm guessing it's because the number is so small that it wouldn't be scary anymore. 37,000 is a small number compared to say car accidents.

    February 20, 2011 at 19:21 | Report abuse |
  34. SalSal Gamboni

    Does the likelihood of getting cancer increase or decrease if she swallows? I've always told the girls that its good for the skin, which works about 1/2 the time. I hope I'm not lying. 🙂

    February 20, 2011 at 19:25 | Report abuse |
  35. Eric

    You silly people. This is nothing new. I could stack up sources here. Various types of HPV viruses causes cervical cancer, p-nis cancer, throat cancer, and genital warts. If everyone used a condominium, no woman would ever be infected, and oral six could then safely be practiced on her. And if he had never had six without a condominium, oral six could safely be practiced on him as well. If not, give him a blo job with a condominium on. Oral contraceptives (birth control pills) is the real culprit behind the continued spread of genital diseases and viruses in modern times. Get a clue – practice safe six! Has been preached for decades now, and even the Pope has FINALLY acknowledged that condominium use is OK. Should I repeat that? Understand slowly? PRACTICE SAFE SIX!

    February 20, 2011 at 19:25 | Report abuse |
    • NyteShayde

      You have a severe spelling problem. Please make corrections and try again. I don't think anyone wants to wear a condominium...

      February 20, 2011 at 19:40 | Report abuse |
  36. BadPatient

    can you get hpv from showers, toilets, etc?

    February 20, 2011 at 19:26 | Report abuse |
  37. sarge

    this is going to be tough for a lot of people to swallow ha

    February 20, 2011 at 19:33 | Report abuse |
  38. jason

    first it was banging monkeys that gave us aids...now who is giving them oral to give us cancer?

    February 20, 2011 at 19:36 | Report abuse |
  39. NyteShayde

    Yep, this study was conducted by a woman. Go figure.

    Before you all start calling me a misogynist...I am female.

    February 20, 2011 at 19:38 | Report abuse |
  40. Ed

    Sorry if I've missed this, but are they saying the risks are the same for men who do oral on women as they are for women who do oral on men?

    February 20, 2011 at 19:41 | Report abuse |
    • Kay

      This is a very good question.

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

    O-ral s-ex does not cause cancer any more than g-ay s-ex causes Aids. The spread of all venereal disease is cause by irresponsibility and promiscuity.

    February 20, 2011 at 19:44 | Report abuse |
  42. Drew

    So the air I breathe, the food I eat, the liquids I drink, the plastic bin I put my lunch in.... let's see what else causes cancer??? Pretty much anything. Don't worry about it.

    February 20, 2011 at 19:44 | Report abuse |
  43. Paulie

    So whatever you do - dont procreate - says the government. We are becoming more like china everyday.

    February 20, 2011 at 19:45 | Report abuse |
  44. Eric

    Everything in life increases risk of cancer. In fact, life itself increases risk of cancer. So if you're worried about it, do yourself a favor: go shoot yourself.

    February 20, 2011 at 19:47 | Report abuse |
  45. Slick Rick

    You guys are too funny

    February 20, 2011 at 19:48 | Report abuse |
  46. DoninOhio

    One more reason to allow vaccination for HPV, but I doubt the conclusions of this study. They only had 300 people in the study, and only 100 of those had diagnosed cancer. Too small a sample size to draw a meaningful conclusion. Also, I question the methodology because other environmental factors maybe were not taken into account.

    February 20, 2011 at 19:51 | Report abuse |
  47. Slick Rick

    LOL @ My Ex wife is a goner!!!! LOL!!!!

    February 20, 2011 at 19:53 | Report abuse |
  48. jmsdh

    I don't think death is funny. Cancer isn't funny. But life can be funny. And I've never laughed so hard as after having great sax. If the study were telling me there's a new, super-treacherous virus out there linked to oral, I would think differently. But it doesn't sound like it. It just seems to say practice some common sense, don't be promiscuous and chances are you won't give or get this cancer. It's all in the numbers to me. You have to take a risk whatever you do.

    February 20, 2011 at 20:00 | Report abuse |
  49. HaakOne

    Wash yourselves dirt bags.

    February 20, 2011 at 20:03 | Report abuse |
  50. Stephenc

    Wow... this news is really hard to swallow

    February 20, 2011 at 20:05 | 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.