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HPV/Genital Warts Health Center

HPV-Linked Oral Cancers May Not Be 'Contagious'

Kissing doesn't seem to raise rate of viral infection between committed partners, study finds
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"They think, 'What kind of a relationship am I involved in? Who is this person?' Many of them have grandchildren and even great-grandchildren and now they have to be worried about their progeny being exposed to this disease," said Kraus, director of the Center for Head and Neck Oncology at Lenox Hill Hospital.

To confront these concerns, researchers took mouth-rinse samples from 164 patients with HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer and 93 partners. They then ran DNA tests for 36 strains of HPV.

Nine out of 10 of the oral cancer patients were men, and nearly all had performed oral sex in the past. They were in their 50s and early 60s.

More than half of the cancer patients had detectable HPV in their saliva at the time of the test, but the virus showed up in only 1.2 percent of the partners tested.

"While oral HPV DNA was common in people with cancer, their spouses did not have an elevated prevalence," D'Souza said. "That suggests either oral HPV is not being transmitted in the saliva when the partners kiss, or they have effectively cleared the infections they've been exposed to."

D'Souza said that most people clear HPV infections within a year or two, and persistent infections can take many years to lead to cancer.

"Partners who have been together for many years have already shared any infections they are going to share," she said.

However, new romantic partners should know that they stand a chance of being infected with oral HPV, even though the infection may not be long-lasting, said Dr. Snehal Bhoola, a gynecologic oncologist with Arizona Oncology, a US Oncology Network affiliate in Phoenix.

"It is possible that HPV may be transmitted to new partners, but this appears to be cleared within one to two years in the majority of patients," Bhoola said. Female partners of HPV-positive patients should continue routine cervical cancer screening per recommended guidelines, he added.

While most people acquire an oral HPV infection by performing oral sex, researchers have not yet tackled whether it can work the other way -- a person with oral HPV transmitting the virus to their partner's genitals during oral sex, D'Souza said.

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