Sexual Health Q&A

Q&A
Female Sexual Health Male Sexual Health
Is oral sex related to certain types of cancers?

Yes, some oral cancers, which affect areas in and around the mouth, are linked to oral sex – stimulating a partner’s genitals with the mouth or tongue. Sometimes, the anus is stimulated this way.

Oral cancer can develop in several areas, including the throat, pharynx, soft palate, tonsils, and tongue.

Not all cases of oral cancer come from oral sex. But when they do, the culprit is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) called human papillomavirus (HPV).

HPV is actually a collective term for over a hundred different types of viruses. Transmitted vaginally and orally, HPV infection is quite common. In fact, most people are infected with HPV at some point in their lives.

Usually, the infection clears on its own. But in some cases, the virus causes changes in cells that may, in time, become cancerous.

In addition to oral cancers, HPV is associated with several other types, including cervical, vulvar, vaginal, penile, and anal cancers. It can also cause genital warts.

It may sound unusual to think of an STI settling in one’s mouth. However, HPV tends to stay where it is first transmitted. Eventually, the virus changes the structure of cells, making it more likely for them to become cancerous.

Cunnilingus (oral sex on a woman) is believed to be riskier than fellatio (oral sex on a man). That’s because HPV concentrations tend to be higher in the moist environment of a woman’s vulva. However, HPV can also be present on a man’s penis and in his ejaculate.

To reduce one’s risk for orally transmitted HPV infections – as well as other STIs - it’s important to have oral sex safely. Here are some guidelines:

  • Know your partner’s sexual history and make sure he or she is infection-free. Since talking about STIs with a partner may be embarrassing sometimes, you might want to consult with a doctor or a sex therapist who can help you practice sexual communication and suggest effective ways to raise and discuss the subject with your partner.
  • Limit your number of sex partners.
  • Ask your doctor about HPV vaccines. While such vaccines are encouraged mostly for children, they might still be appropriate for teenagers and young adults.
  • Men who are receiving oral sex on their penis should always wear a condom throughout the sexual encounter.
  • People performing oral sex on a woman should always use a dental dam.
  • Anyone performing oral sex on a partner’s anus should also use a dental dam. A dental dam is a sheet of latex or polyurethane used to cover the genitals or anus during oral sex. Packages of dams can be purchased online or at some pharmacies.  One can also make a dam from a latex condom by cutting off the top and bottom portions, then cutting along the side to make a rectangular sheet.
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