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Oral sex linked to rare throat cancer

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by In collaboration with PA Media Group | News

11 May 2007

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New evidence has been found that links the spread of human papillomavirus (HPV) through oral sex with some throat cancers in both men and women. 

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that having multiple oral sex partners tops the list of sex practices that boosts the risk of HPV-linked cancer, regardless of tobacco or alcohol use. 

However, report author Dr Maura Gillison from the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, added that “people should be reassured that oropharyngeal cancer is relatively uncommon, and the overwhelming majority of people with an oral HPV infection probably will not get throat cancer”. 

The study looked at 100 men and women newly diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer and found those who had evidence of prior HPV infection were 32 times more likely to develop the cancer. Smokers’ risk of developing throat cancer is three times higher than normal and for heavy drinkers it is 2.5 times higher. 

Study participants who reported having more than six oral sex partners in their lifetime were 8.6 times more likely to develop the HPV-linked cancer.

 Dr Julie Sharp, science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: “There is conflicting evidence about the role of HPV, and this rare type of throat cancer.

“As this was a small study, further research is needed to confirm these observations.”

“We know that after age, the main causes of mouth cancer are smoking or chewing tobacco or betel nut, and drinking too much alcohol.”

Most HPV infections clear with little or no symptoms, but a small percentage of men and women who acquire cancer-causing or “high-risk” strains, such as HPV 16, may develop a cancer. HPV-linked cancers currently include oral, anal, cervical, vaginal, penile, and vulvar cancers.