Can Oral Play Cause Cancer?

oral play

There is a silent danger lurking behind the walls of pleasure. No, this is not the opening of a crime thriller. Let me start with a question. What’s the leading cause of oral cancer? Smoking? Heavy drinking?

Actually, it’s oral play.

Some types of oral cancer are linked to human papilloma virus (HPV) infection in the mouth and throat. Find out the possible risks of this infection from oral play, and how to protect yourself.

Scientists say that 64 percent of cancers of the oral cavity, head, and neck are caused by human papilloma virus (HPV), which is commonly spread through oral play. The more oral play you have – and the more oral play partners you have – the greater the risk of developing these potentially deadly cancers. In general, there is no need for individuals in monogamous relationships to restrict their sexual activities if the pair is in good health

“An individual who has more lifetime partners – on whom they’ve performed oral play – has an eightfold increase in risk compared to someone who has never performed oral play, Ohio State University’s Dr. Maura Gillison, said at a recent scientific meeting. Today’s teens consider oral play to be casual, socially acceptable, inconsequential, and significantly less risky to their health than ‘real’ play. Teens simply think oral play is “not that a big a deal.” Virgins who have done nothing but open-mouthed kissing have been found to be infected.

HPV is thought to be, for the most part, sexually transmitted. The viruses cause almost all cases of cervical cancer, and can cause genital warts and anal cancer. The link between HPV and oral cancer is less clear, but studies have been increasingly lenient towards an increased risk of acquiring HPV infection in the mouth.

The next time you think about going down on a woman, think about this. She is almost certain to have been infected at some point with a virus that could, years from now, give you throat cancer.

Unlike cervical cancer, which can be detected with a Pap smear, there is no test that can easily identify HPV-related throat cancer. By the time those with the disease become aware that they’re sick, cancer has often spread to their lymph nodes. Surgery can be disfiguring, and chemotherapy and radiation are exhausting and debilitating. And while HPV-related throat cancers are generally more curable than those that result from smoking or alcohol use, 40 percent of the 36,000 people diagnosed each year with oral cancer will die from the disease within five years.

Researchers have identified risk factors. Losing your virginity at an early age and having many sexual partners boost your chances. Statistics show the rates of oral (mouth) cancer are rising.

How Do You Get HPV in the Mouth?

There are more than 100 types of HPV, and around 15 are associated with cancers. These 15 are known as high-risk HPV types.

The types of HPV found in the mouth are almost entirely sexually transmitted, so it’s likely that oral play is the primary route of getting them. The high-risk HPV types are also passed on through vaginal and anal play, and are linked to cervical cancer, vulval and vaginal cancer, anal cancer, penile cancer, laryngeal cancer, and tonsil cancer.

Some can be passed on through skin-to-skin contact and cause genital warts. The types of HPV that cause visible warts are low risk and are not the same types that cause cancer. Most sexually active people (about 90%) will have been exposed to either high or low risk genital HPV types by age 25, but only 2-3% of these people develop visible genital warts. So most of us have been infected, but few are affected.

It’s not known how common HPV infection in the mouth is. A study carried out in 2009-10 concluded that the prevalence of oral HPV infection in American men was 10%, and in women 3.6%. Risk factors for oral HPV identified by this study included:

  • Age: Prevalence peaked in the 30-34 and 60-64 age groups.
  • Number of sexual partners: 20% of people with more than 20 partners had oral HPV infection.
  • Smoking: Current number of cigarettes smoked per day.

There is good evidence suggesting that, for some oral cancers, risk factors may be linked to sexual behavior. These risk factors include:

  • Ever having oral play.
  • Having oral play with four or more people in your lifetime.
  • Among men, having first play at an earlier age (under 18).

At the moment, there is very little research that looks at the possible risks from giving oral play to a man compared to giving oral playto a woman. But we do know that HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer is twice as common in men than women, and is most common in heterosexual men in their 40s and 50s. This indicates that performing cunnilingus (oral play on a woman) is more risky that performing fellatio (oral play on a man). This seems counterintuitive, but the concentration of HPV in the thinner moist skin of the vulva is much higher than the amounts of virus shed from the thicker dry skin of the penis, and this affects how easy it is to pass the virus on. Other research indicates that HPV can be present in semen and passed on at ejaculation. What is definitely known is that infections like herpes, chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea are spread via oral play, so it makes sense to protect yourself and your sexual partner by practicing safer oral play.

How Does HPV Cause Cancer?

HPV does not directly give you cancer but it causes changes in the cells it has infected (for example, in the throat or cervix), and these cells can then become cancerous. Very few people infected with HPV will develop cancer. In 90% of cases, the infection is cleared naturally by the body within two years.

However, people who smoke are much less likely to clear the virus from their body. This is because smoking damages special protective cells in the skin called immune surveillance cells, allowing the virus to persist. Cervical and vulval cancer is rare in women who don’t smoke, unless they have some other cause of immunosuppression (a weakened immune system). If cell changes do happen, it can take a long time – even decades. HPV-related oral cancers seem to respond better to treatment than non-HPV-related oral cancers.

So, now that you have a better understanding, may your pleasure adventures remain safe and fulfilling!

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