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MDLinxCan Engaging in Oral Sex Increase Your Risk of Head and Neck Cancer?

Is Oral Sex a Hidden Contributor to Rising Oropharyngeal Cancer Rates?

The rise in oropharyngeal cancer rates, particularly in Western countries, has been linked to high-risk strains of HPV, such as HPV-16 and HPV-18. Unsafe oral sex is a significant risk factor, but other factors like heavy smoking and chemical exposure also contribute. As healthcare providers, understanding these risks and advising patients on preventative measures is crucial.

Key Points:

  • Oropharyngeal cancer rates have risen due to high-risk strains of HPV, primarily transmitted through sexual contact, including oral sex.
  • Other risk factors include heavy smoking, exposure to industrial chemicals, and excessive alcohol consumption.
  • About 70% of head and neck or oropharyngeal cancers in the US are caused by HPV.
  • Individuals with six or more oral-sex partners in their lifetime were 8.5 times more likely to develop this cancer.
  • HPV vaccination, safe sex practices, and regular oral cavity screenings are crucial preventative measures.

Additional Points:

  • HPV-associated head and neck cancer can also be transmitted through deep kissing.
  • Unlike oropharyngeal cancer, other HPV-associated cancers, like cervical cancer, have significantly decreased since 2005 due to widespread HPV vaccination.
  • Symptoms of HPV-related head and neck cancer include a neck mass or swelling, painful deglutition, difficulty while eating, and persistent sore throat.
  • The three-round HPV vaccine, administered to males and females aged 9 to 45 years, is highly recommended.


  • By promoting safe sex practices, HPV vaccination, and educating patients on early signs of head and neck cancer, healthcare providers can play a significant role in reducing the risk of oropharyngeal cancer.

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“A common misconception is that HPV-associated head and neck cancer is solely caused by oral sex. In fact, HPV-associated head and neck cancer can be transmitted through deep kissing, not just oral sex.”

Neil Gross, MD
Specialist in HPV-associated Head and Neck Cancers
MD Anderson Cancer Center
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