While some people are still debating if oral sex is even sex, recent studies have concluded that oral sex carries many of the same risks as vaginal sex, including the human papilloma virus, or HPV. Even more significantly, HPV seems well on the way to trumping tobacco as a leading cause of oral cancers in America.
At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, data presented suggested that a whopping 64 percent of oropharynx cancers, cancers that grow in the middle part of the throat, are caused by HPV, said Maura Gillison of Ohio State University, who was a presenter. Risk of exposure dramatically increases with the more people youve had oral sex with.
According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, approximately 37,000 people a year are diagnosed with oral cancer, and almost every one of them has been exposed to at least one of the 130 known strains of HPV. Not all of these strains are cancer-causing; several strains cause benign warts on the hands and feet.
Exposure to HPV doesnt automatically mean youll develop throat cancer, by any means. Even when an individual has been infected, experts say that 70 percent of those infections resolve themselves within a year, and 90 percent within two years. Its that remaining 10 percent that can turn into a more serious infection, which in turn may become precancerous lesions that can be treated.
Besides limiting ones sexual partners, there are precautions you can take. The vaccines Gardasil and Cervarix afford a modicum of protection; these vaccines are given in three shots, but are believed to be most effective when administered before a persons first sexual contact; i.e. when theyre virgins. Gardasil can be given to young men up to age 26 to prevent genital warts. These vaccines, unfortunately, leave older people out of the loop. Signs and symptoms of trouble brewing include genital warts, warts in the throat, and other HPV-related cancers that may have been diagnosed. Symptoms may be as innocuous as chronic swollen glands or a long-lasting sore throat. The best prevention is condom use and circumcision, although neither completely eliminates risk. More frighteningly, a person may have HPV and be asymptomatic for years. That is why it is important to have regular medical screenings and yearly gynecological exams. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that while there is no actual treatment for HPV virus itself, there are treatments for the diseases HPV can cause. Survival rates are good if the cancer is detected early, and the patient undergoes radiation and chemotherapy. Oral sex is enjoyable, but not without risk. Approach it as you would with any partner; in other words, know who youre sleeping with, get regular medical checkups, and always use condoms unless youre certain youre in a long term, committed, monogamous relationship. Eve Marx writes about sex frequently for ThirdAge.com