Does Oral Sex Really Cause Cancer?

As a nurse, this might seem like one of those odd questions you get doing triage in a clinic. Patients often come in asking strange questions when they are scared and not sure what is going on with their bodies. Before you try to assuage their worry with a quick, “No, not at all,” you may want to brush up on some of the latest research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While oral sex as an activity does not directly lead to a person developing cancer, having oral sex can be a means through which you expose yourself to various strains of viruses that, in turn, can cause cancer. The most prominent of these viruses is the HPV virus, or the human papillomavirus infection.

Oral Cancer Statistics

According to statistics and reports published by the CDC, an estimated 9,000 new cases of oral and throat cancers are being reported each year that are being directly attributed to a person’s exposure to the HPV virus.

As of right now, we have vaccinations and preventative measures that can help prevent people from getting the HPV. In some cases, after exposure to the virus, a person experiences no symptoms. Nothing happens. Others develop the HPV infection, and it can clear up on its own. There are also medications used to treat the infection. There are even some instances where the virus becomes hard to treat and might lead to complications, such as genital warts, which can contain precancerous cells in with the mutated cells. Those precancerous cells can further develop into cancer if not treated.

Only 7 percent of the human population is walking around with HPV. As stated previously, some of those 7 percent never even know they have HPV because they do not experience any symptoms. There is a smaller portion of the population – about 1 percent – that have the particular strain of HPV (HPV 16) that doctors linked to throat cancer, as well.

How to Protect Your Patients

If a patient asks you this question, you need to respond in the right way. For starters, there’s no reason to scare your patient away from oral sex. If your patient is smart and safe, sexual activity will not hurt them. Assure them that healthy sexual activity does not have any direct correlation to cancer. Let them know, however, that certain sets of circumstances can greatly increase their risk of developing cancer. Here are several facts to provide your patients, so that they can proactively help protect themselves from HPV and related illnesses, including potential cancers.

Limit your sexual partners: This might seem like a common-sense thing, but there are people out there who are sexually adventurous and who do not enjoy monogamous relationships. While we don’t judge, we do need to emphasize that having multiple oral sex partners greatly increases the risk of being exposed to HPV, HPV 16, and other sexually transmitted diseases. Encourage them to limit the number of people they have sexual relations with.

Additionally, if they have a lot of partners and do not wish to break the habit, encourage routine HPV and STD testing, especially in men. While women can get HPV just as men, women have much lower rates of throat cancers caused by HPV. Some medical professionals theorize that women’s bodies have greater defenses against HPV-related throat cancers because they have a greater resistance to HPV, which is the number 1 cause of cervical cancer. Men do not have any of these natural immune defenses and are at greater risk than their female counterparts.

Schedule regular dental visits: While this might seem strange, a dentist will notice odd changes in the mouth and throat very quickly. Precancerous mutations and cell growth often happen near the tongue and tonsils. This is something a dentist would likely pick up on rather quickly.

Get cancer screenings: If HPV-related cancer is something that a patient worries about, they should simply ask a doctor to do a screening or for a referral. The process takes only minutes, and they will get a definite answer about whether they have anything to worry about.

Get tested often: If your patient seems persistent and unwilling to give up their sexually active lifestyle, one of the best things they can do to protect their health is regular testing. If they regularly engage with multiple partners, they need a checkup every six months. HPV (and an array of other STDs) does not always present with symptoms, so getting tested can help ensure that they are not carrying and passing on an infection to others. In a perfect world, you want your patient’s partners to receive an HPV and STD test, as well.

If a patient is truly worried about their health or thinks that they might be dealing with some sort of cancer, it is imperative that they contact their physician. Their regular doctor can provide all the information they need for testing, protection, and prevention.

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Scrubs Staff


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