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.