Have you heard that oral sex can cause cancer?

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A study published in early 2011 found an unexpected and unexplained rise in oral cancers that are associated with HPV. When researchers sought to find an answer for their results they found a separate survey, which found a rise in oral sex. Since it is very possible to spread HPV through oral sex many experts concurred with the findings and they were subsequently released to the public.

When media outlets caught wind of these findings, they ran with the story that our wanton oral sex was causing the higher incidents of HPV related oral cancers. Unfortunately, that’s only part of the story.  

When you read into the findings, you find out that the researchers only found a correlation between people who have performed oral sex at some point in their life and people with HPV related oral cancers.

 If you know anything about research, then you know that a correlation is not proof. For example there is a 100% correlation between people who drink water and people who die. Does that mean that drinking water caused people to die? Probably not.

You may be wondering, “If higher rates of oral sex is not causing the rise in HPV related oral cancers then what is?” Unfortunately, we have no idea. Sure the oral sex hypothesis is a very valid and well-reasoned argument. However, we have not done the proper research to back that claim.

When it comes to HPV we know that it is extremely common. From the research, we know that about 26.8% of women at any point have HPV. We don’t have specific numbers for men but we assume that the number is slightly higher.  The CDC (Center for Disease Control) says that “Approximately 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV. Another 6 million people become newly infected each year. HPV is so common that at least 50% of sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives.”

The CDC also says that, “Most people with HPV do not develop symptoms or health problems from it. In 90% of cases, the body’s immune system clears HPV naturally within two years.”  

With regards to protection, we know that, “Vaccines can protect males and females against some of the most common types of HPV.” The vaccines available for women are Gardasil and Cervarix with only the former being available for men. Vaccines are only available for people under the age of 26 and if you are already sexually active they will not be as effective because you may already be infected.

Condoms, are wonderful devices but they will not completely protect you from HPV, which can be spread from any skin contact. Since a condom does not completely cover the entirety of the genital area it’s still very possible to transmit the virus.

HPV is one of the few STIs that you can’t really avoid, unless you abstain from all sexual contact. Even then, all your precaution could be thwarted by a hand shake. The best advice I can give you is to get vaccinated, if you’re 26 or younger, and wear a condom.  

Just so we are clear, blow jobs do not cause cancer.

If you have any more questions about HPV, STIs, and/or safer sex practices don’t hesitate to ask!

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