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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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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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