If you’re wondering whether oral sex causes head and throat cancers, the answer is… sort of. While the act itself is not associated with these types of cancers, oral sex can transmit human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. HPV increases the chance of developing certain types of cancer.

But don’t get aHEAD of yourself with this info. Education is everything, and this includes understanding the research and engaging in safer sex practices to protect yourself and your partners. Read on to learn more about the link between oral sex and HPV, what the science says, safer sex practices, and more.

What’s the connection between oral sex and HPV?

When HPV is found in the mouth and throat, it can cause cancers of the oropharynx, the area in the back of the throat that includes the base of the tongue and tonsils. HPV is believed to be the cause of 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States. Pretty much all HPV found in the mouth is sexually transmitted, meaning it’s highly likely oral sex is the cause. But there are ways to mitigate the risks.

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HPV is most commonly associated with cervical cancer, especially two higher risk strains, HPV 16 and HPV 18. These strains cause about 70 percent of cervical cancers and pre-cancerous lesions, and are more likely to cause throat cancers.

However, it’s important to note that approximately 90 percent of HPV infections clear up within 2 years, meaning that few people with HPV will actually develop cancer.

A 2021 study found that HPV–related oropharyngeal cancer occurs more frequently in people who:

  • have a higher number of sex partners
  • smoke
  • first engage in oral sex at a younger age
  • regularly engage in oral sex

Another study saw that men have a higher occurrence of oral HPV than women. These findings also aligned with other study results as well.

Ultimately, HPV is not the only cause of these types of throat cancers. But having HPV, and especially the higher risk strains, may increase the chance that these cancers could develop.

Smoking is still a leading cause of head and throat cancers, but as fewer people smoke cigarettes, researchers don’t believe they are responsible for a dramatic increase in cancer cases. Heavier alcohol consumption also may be a factor linked to head and throat cancers.

Some non-HPV factors that make head and throat cancers occur more frequently, include:

  • smoking and using other tobacco products
  • heavier alcohol use
  • a diet lower in nutrients, fruits, and vegetables
  • a Plummer-Vinson syndrome diagnosis
  • exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus
  • genetic factors
  • environmental exposure, such as to asbestos and other chemicals
  • being assigned male at birth
  • being older than 65

Sexual and reproductive health matters, which is why it’s important to educate yourself on safer sex practices. Practicing safer sex includes everything from understanding what consent really means to preventing unintended pregnancies to lowering your chance of contracting a sexually transmitted infection.

Some safer sex practices include:

You may want to consider steering clear of cigarettes, drinking in moderation, and getting the HPV vaccine, just to be safe. Getting tested regularly can also be a good idea.

Oh, and BTW, if you have or contract a sexually transmitted infection, there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. The stigma is all too real, and can keep folks from getting tested in the first place. Always talk with your doctor about any concerns you have, educate yourself, and keep living your best life.