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If You Think You Can Avoid HPV by Only Having Oral Sex, Think Again

Sarah grew up in Monterey, CA and now lives in Los Angeles. When she's not writing, you can find her enjoying a good book, fine wine, sunflowers and long walks on the beach.

What you need to know about HPV, oral sex and cancer

HPV — a sexually transmitted infection that is recognized as the major cause of cervical cancer — has gotten a lot of press over the past couple of years, and for good reason: A recent study published in JAMA Oncology found that almost half of American men have a genital human papillomavirus infection, and about 25 percent of the infected men have the so-called "high-risk" types of HPV, which are more strongly linked with cancer than low-risk types of HPV.

HPV is now the most common STI in the U.S. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even freakier is the fact that you can be a virgin and still get this scary STI. That's right, a 2016 study found that the virus was present in 51 percent of female virgins — some who likely got it from hand-to-genital contact.

But what about oral sex? If HPV can be transmitted through hand-to-genital contact, then you must be at a high risk of contracting it through oral, right? Unfortunately, yes. You can definitely get HPV through oral sex, which in turn raises your risk of developing cancers of the mouth and throat.

More: Erin Andrews' Scary Diagnosis and What You Need to Know About Cervical Cancer

The CDC reports that about 7 percent of people have oral HPV, though only 1 percent of people have the type of oral HPV that is found in oropharyngeal cancers (cancers in the back of the throat, most commonly in the base of the tongue and tonsils). Oral HPV is about three times more common in men than in women.

How you get HPV orally

Sadly, there haven't been a lot of studies done on how HPV is contracted orally, and the studies that have been done are pretty inconclusive — in other words, we are in dire need of some research.

Some studies suggest that oral HPV may be passed on during oral sex (from mouth-to-genital or mouth-to-anus contact) or even just French-kissing according to the CDC. At this point, the likelihood of getting HPV from kissing or having oral sex with someone who has HPV is not known.

HPV and oral cancer

HPV is the leading cause of oropharyngeal cancers according to The Oral Cancer Foundation. HPV 16 is the version of HPV that most often causes cancer. It affects both males and females — though white, nonsmoking males age 35 to 55 are most at risk.

The Oral Cancer Foundation also reports that the fastest-growing segment of the oral and oropharyngeal cancer population are otherwise healthy nonsmokers in the 25 to 50 age range — and HPV is driving the growth in numbers of oral cancers

Symptoms of oral cancer

Catching oral cancer early is pivotal for recovery. Harvard Medical School's Harvard Health Publications urges you to see your doctor if you have one or more of these symptoms for more than two to three weeks:

  • A sore in your mouth or on your tongue that doesn’t heal
  • Persistent pain with swallowing or sore throat
  • A lump in your neck that persists

Regular visits to the dentist have also proven to be key in detecting oral cancer.

Symptoms of HPV

HPV can obviously be deadly, but most of the time people don't even know they have it because the virus often produces no signs or symptoms according to The Oral Cancer Foundation. It's also believed that HPV can have long periods of inactivity or dormancy that may cover decades — and you can even test negative for it if it's dormant even though you do have the virus. And HPV can be passed even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms.

In some cases, HPV can manifest as genital warts, which usually appear as a small bump or group of bumps in the genital area, says the CDC. They can be small or large, raised or flat or shaped like a cauliflower.

Prevention

At this point, the only way to prevent HPV is through safe sex — and even then there's no way to be 100 percent sure you won't contract the virus. However, the CDC says that condoms and dental dams, when used consistently and correctly, will likely lower the chances of giving or getting oral HPV during oral sex.

In addition, there is no FDA-approved test to diagnose HPV in the mouth or throat.

Like we said before, the United States' population is obviously in great need of more research on HPV, oral sex and cancer.

Before you go, check out our slideshow below.

What you need to know about HPV, oral sex and cancer

Image: WENN, Shannen Doherty/Instagram

Originally published July 2009. Updated February 2017.

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