Is oral sex safe?

Sarah-Belle Murphy
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Is oral sex safe? Image: Getty

Birds and bees

Not everything you hear about the birds and the bees in the playground turns out to be true.

In fact you can pretty much discount all of it — you can't catch boys' kooties from a kiss, you won't get catch an STD by holding hands and oral sex will not end in pregnancy. That said, the latter may have more consequences than we had previously imagined if recent reports of HPV-related throat cancers are anything to go by.

The virus
Human papillomavirus (HPV) — the virus at the root of most cervical cancer cases — is on the rise and around 6000 new cases are reported in the US each year. If researchers in the US are to be believed, the throat cancer will affect more people than cervical cancer in the next 10 years.

One of the lesser known causes of cancer, HPV is thought to have taken hold decades ago during the time baby boomers came of age — and as result is now showing up predominately men and women over 50 years old.

The cause
The exact reason for this is still unclear but there is mounting evidence that the rise may be linked to the evolution of sexual practises changed in the swinging 1960s and '70s. In a well-documented study carried out in 1994, oral sex was found to be a more common intimate act among people born in the 1950s than in previous generations.

It was previously believed that cancers found in the upper throat could be attributed to smoking or alcohol consumption. However in the light of research carried out by the Johns Hopkins University's Kimmel Cancer Centre, HPV-positive cancer patients tended to have a more extensive sexual history than those with other forms.

The theory
So why is oral sex a risk factor? According to medical experts, the virus thrives on the skin and can be transmitted via skin-to-skin contact. In the same way intercourse is aligned with cervical cancer, oral sex can be seen as a link to throat cancer.

At this point in time, the hard facts have yet to be proven. But medical experts have warned that the notion of oral sex being 'safe' is no longer the case.

The answer?
Researchers believe that the widespread use of the HPV vaccine, which lessens the risk of cervical cancer, may also offer protection from HPV-positive throat cancers. Although this too has yet to be proven.

For more information on the HPV vaccine consult your GP.

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