Too many oral partners in the bedroom significantly boosts cancer risk, study concludes

BALTIMORE, Md. — When sexually transmitted diseases go untreated, they can lead to much more serious complications. In the case of the human papillomavirus (HPV), persistent infections in the mouth and throat can eventually cause cancer. A new study finds too much oral sex may significantly increase the risk of developing cancer.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University say having more than 10 oral sex partners makes someone 4.3 times more likely to be diagnosed with HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer. The study also reveals having oral sex at younger ages and engaging with several partners in a short period of time (oral sex intensity) increases the chances of mouth and throat cancer.

The Baltimore team examined 163 patients with HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer and 345 healthy individuals. Each person completed a behavioral survey looking at their sexual history and even the relationship status of their partners. The survey discovered that younger participants with older sex partners also had a higher risk for cancer.

Researchers add marital status even plays a role. People having oral sex with partners engaging in extramarital affairs tended to be at higher risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer.

“Our study builds on previous research to demonstrate that it is not only the number of oral sexual partners, but also other factors not previously appreciated that contribute to the risk of exposure to HPV orally and subsequent HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer,” says Johns Hopkins’ Dr. Virginia Drake in a media release. “As the incidence of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer continues to rise in the United States, our study offers a contemporary evaluation of risk factors for this disease. We have uncovered additional nuances of how and why some people may develop this cancer, which may help identify those at greater risk.”

What is oropharyngeal cancer?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, this form of head and neck cancer develops in an area of the throat called the oropharynx. This is the middle portion of a person’s throat, right behind the mouth. The oropharynx includes the base of the tongue, the tonsils, the roof of the mouth, and the throat walls. This whole area works to make saliva and keep the mouth moist, aiding in the digestion process.

In over 90 percent of oropharyngeal cases, the cancer develops in flat surface cells lining a patient’s mouth and throat. The American Cancer Society estimates that over 53,000 people in the U.S. developed oral cancer in 2020. More than 10,000 people will die from their illness each year. Oropharyngeal cancer is also twice as common in men than it is in women.

The study appears in the American Cancer Society’s journal Cancer.

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