HPV Linked to Throat Cancer
Oral Sex Is Major Risk Factor
WebMD News Archive
May 9, 2007 - HPV, the virus that causes cervical cancer, is also linked to
throat cancer, and oral sex is a major risk factor for both men and women, new
Having multiple oral sex partners topped the list of practices associated
with an increased risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer, according to the
study published in the May 10 issue of The New England Journal of
People in the study who reported having a history of six or more oral sex
partners were three times as likely to develop the cancer as people who
reported that they had never had oral sex.
In looking at patients with tumors that were positive for a particular
strain of HPV already well-linked to cervical cancer, six or more oral sex
partners increased risk for throat cancer by eightfold.
And those who showed evidence of a prior oral infection with human
papillomavirus (HPV) were 32 times more likely to develop the cancer.
Oral sex seemed to be the main mode of transmission for oral HPV, although
the researchers note that transmission from mouth to mouth contact couldn't be
excluded. The new study shows that oral HPV infection is linked to head and
neck cancer regardless of two other known risk factors: heavy tobacco and
But longtime HPV researcher Maura L. Gillison, MD, PhD, of Johns Hopkins
University in Baltimore, says the findings should not be seen as cause for
“This is a very uncommon cancer, so a person’s individual risk is pretty
small,” she tells WebMD.
Sex, Smoking, and Alcohol
Gillison and colleagues first reported the link between oral HPV infection
and head and neck cancer in 2000, and since then dozens of other studies have
bolstered the finding.
But their latest investigation is among the first to comprehensively examine
the behaviors that contribute to risk.
Longtime heavy tobacco and alcohol use are among the strongest identified
risk factors for head and neck cancers.
But the new findings suggest that HPV is a stronger risk factor for
oropharyngeal cancer, which Gillison says accounts for about one in four head
and neck cancers. Oropharyngeal cancer occurs in the area beyond the mouth from
the base of the tongue to the back of the throat.
“The number of oropharyngeal cancers caused by HPV is probably larger than
the number caused by smoking and alcohol, at least in the U.S.,” Gillison
The new research included 86 men and 14 women with a new diagnosis of
oropharyngeal cancer and 200 sex- and age-matched people without cancer.
Both groups completed anonymous surveys examining sexual history and other
lifestyle factors, and oral swabs, blood, and saliva samples were collected
from all participants.
HPV 16, one of two HPV strains that cause 70% of cervical cancers and 90% of
head and neck cancers that are HPV-positive, was found in 72% of the
oropharyngeal tumors. Evidence of prior HPV 16 exposure, in the form of
antibodies to the virus, was also strongly linked to oropharyngeal cancer.
The researchers were also surprised to find that heavy smoking and drinking
did not seem to add to the risk in people with evidence of oral HPV