Many of us, especially teens, still believe that oral sex is less risky than ‘real sex,’ which is not real nor true. Those of us who work with young people often hear them proclaim that having oral sex prevents them from getting pregnant and from getting HIV. Also not true. Thanks to the "Michael Douglas: Oral Sex caused my cancer" headline that went viral earlier this month, young people and adults are now worrying about the Human Papilloma Virus, otherwise known as HPV.
HPV is a virus that infects skin and moist areas of the body. It is the most commonly sexually transmitted infection in the US and it has significant impact on our health as individuals and communities. There are more than 120 types of HPV. Some types cause visible warts or papillomas on the hands, legs, and arms. These are mostly harmless, treatable, and typically do not cause cancer. Other types, however, can cause warts on the penis or vagina, known as condylomata acuminatum, and they look something like a cauliflower. Most of the time our bodies are able to get rid of or clear the virus within two years before is causes health issues.
Passing HPV from person-to-person happens by someone coming in contact with the virus on someone else’s skin or mucosa. Undoubtedly, the virus can be spread from one person to another via oral, vaginal, and/or anal sex. Two specific types of HPV (Types 16 and 18), known to cause the majority of cervical cancers, can also cause growths in the genital area that are difficult to see. HPV 16 is the type that is linked to oral sex and oral cancer, and it mainly affects the back of the mouth, tongue, and throat, including the tonsils.
It’s interesting to note what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), says about HPV-associated cancers:
· Black and Hispanic women have higher rates of HPV-associated cancers than White women.
· HPV-associated oral cancers are higher for Black and White men compared to Asian men.
· Men are three times more likely to have these oral cancers than women.
HPV-associated cancers happens with those who have riskier sexual behaviors. So the more sex partners one has, along with having more oral sex, the higher the risk of getting HPV, and therefore cancer.
Long-term use of tobacco and alcohol used to be the primary cause of oral cancers. However, Dr. Maura Gillison and Colleagues at the University of Ohio found that the amount of oral cancers caused by HPV increased from 16% to 72% from 1984 to 2004. Researchers speculate that this is due, in part, to the change in US culture and the expression of sexual freedom in the 1960s.
Unfortunately, there is currently no test to screen for oral cancers like the use of pap smears for cervical cancer testing in women. Even though there is a vaccine to prevent HPV, it has only been tested in preventing genital warts as well as anal and genital cancers, not in preventing oral cancers.
Here are the Doctor’s Orders to help prevent the spread of HPV:
· Get the vaccine if you or your child is a young woman between 13-26 years old or a young man between 13-21 years. Even though the vaccine is considered safe and effective, many are not getting vaccinated.
· Use latex condoms if you choose to have vaginal or anal sex.
· Use a dental dam for the vagina and anus or use latex condoms for men if you choose to have oral sex. Also, avoid oral sex when a woman is menstruating.
· Know your HPV status and get HPV testing. According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, do so starting at the age of 30 through 65 every 5 years with your pap smear. Unfortunately, there is no HPV test for men.
· Ask those you engage with sexually when is the last time they were tested for all sexually transmitted infections. Ask to see the results. Keep in mind that unless you actually see the results you may not know the truth.
· Talk with teenagers openly about making informed, responsible choices about sexual activity…and do the same!
Protection, whether with barriers as well as vaccines, remains paramount to ensuring your sexual health for the young, old, and all in between.
Dr. Aletha Maybank is a Board Certified physician in both Pediatrics and Preventive Medicine/Public Health. You can follow her on Twitter at @DrAlethaMaybank