Oral cancer made big headlines in 2013 when actor Michael Douglas blamed his throat cancer on oral sex. The 72-year-old star said he contracted the human papilloma virus (HPV) through oral sex, which triggered his cancer. Douglas’ revelation stirred a debate about whether oral cancers, like throat cancer and mouth cancer, can be a sexually contracted disease.
More than 3,100 new cases of HPV-associated oral cancers are diagnosed in women and over 12,600 are diagnosed in men annually in the U.S. In fact, most adults are at risk of contracting HPV, and 80 percent of people will test positive for HPV infection within five years of becoming sexually active. The truth is, most of us have been infected, but few of us are affected.
There are over 100 strains of HPV, but roughly 15 are known as high-risk HPV types. It’s important to note that detecting the HPV virus in a sample of people who have oral cancer, doesn’t mean that HPV caused the cancer. Rather, the virus becomes part of the genetic material of the cancer cells, which triggers them to grow.
Typically, HPV found in the mouth is sexually transmitted, meaning oral sex is the most common way of contracting the disease. It’s not known how common HPV infection in the mouth is, but a recent reportreleased by the Canadian Cancer Society and Public Health Agency of Canada found rates of HPV mouth and throat cancers in males are increasing.
A 2011 study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that the proportion of oral cancers related to HPV increased from 16.3 percent to 71.7 percent between 1984 and 2004. Previous data presented that same year at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting proposed HPV was overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of oral cancers in Americans under the age of 50.
Meanwhile, risk factors for oral cancers have been linked to sexual behavior, such as ever having oral sex, having oral sex with four or more people in your lifetime, and among men, first having sex at an earlier age (under 18). HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives.
“In most cases, the virus goes away and it does not lead to any health problems. There is no certain way to know which people infected with HPV will go on to develop cancer,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
However, when cancer does occur and it’s detected early, patients have an 80 to 90 percent survival rate.
This is why early protection against HPV is advised. The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatricsrecommends both boys and girls get the HPV vaccine between the ages of 11 and 12. The vaccine is most effective if it’s administered before a child becomes sexually active.
HPV vaccines and practicing safe oral sex can help reduce the number of cases of HPV infection in women and men. This will make it less common in the general population, and minimizing the cases of HPV-related cancers in years to come.