This Is Why Oral Sex Could Be Really Bad For Your Health
Long known to cause cervical cancer, the pervasive but often silent human papillomavirus (HPV) has been finding its way into women’s mouths.
Ten years ago, oral cancer among women was practically unheard of. Patients were nearly always male and over 50, heavy smokers or drinkers, or both. (When actor Michael Douglas was diagnosed with the illness, the media pointed to his longtime half-a-pack-a-day habit.)
But according to the Journal of Clinical Oncology, there has been a major upswing in HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer, a deadly disease often found in the base of the tongue and the tonsils.
In fact, up to 20% of all oral cancers are now HPV-related, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and about 25% of cases occur in women, some as young as 19, says oncologist Dr Gregory Masters.
But how could HPV be causing so many mouth problems? It’s something doctors and health experts have long feared, thanks to the rampant spread of the virus.
You’ve probably heard the stats: one in 35 women in South Africa will develop cervical cancer, predominantly caused by HPV. About 21% of SA women are estimated to harbour a cervical HPV infection at any time. What’s more, the virus – which can have zero symptoms or bloom into visible warts – will affect up to 80% of sexually active women.
In the majority of cases, the body’s immune system will clear up the HPV within two years (there is some debate over whether the same HPV infection can return to cause cervical lesions later, but research is in the early stages).
However, some infected SA women – around 6 000 per year – will not clear and may develop cervical cancer. This has prompted the WHO to recommend that girls be vaccinated for HPV by age 12.
To date, safe-sex campaigns have blamed the spread of HPV on unprotected vaginal sex. But it’s now clear that the disease can be contracted orally too. Thousands of women’s mouths were infected with HPV-16, the strain that most doctors believe is responsible for the majority of HPV-related oral cancers.