Oral sex and throat health

Story By Maj Dr. Carl Nutsugah

Oral sex is a commonly practiced act of foreplay in which the genital area is kissed or licked to please the partner. The human papillomavirus (HPV) can spread during oral sex and increase the risk of throat cancer.
You probably think of cervical cancer when you hear about the rising incidence of human papillomavirus (HPV). It may therefore surprise you to learn that this sexually transmitted virus is also a major cause of throat cancer (oropharyngeal cancer) and is transmitted from person to person through oral sex.
Oropharyngeal cancer is cancer in the oropharynx, the middle part of your throat (pharynx). Symptoms include a sore throat that does not go away, a lump in your throat, mouth or neck, coughing up blood, a white spot in your mouth and other symptoms. Treatment may include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, targeted drug therapy and immunotherapy.
Although oral cavity cancer has long been linked to smoking, head and neck surgeons say that current research shows that HPV is directly linked to some throat cancers. In fact, these cancers are on the rise and will soon outnumber new cases of cervical cancer.

What are the risks

The biggest risk of contracting oral HPV and getting HPV-related throat cancer is having multiple oral sex partners. A higher number of partners increases the risk for both men and women.
Smoking also increases the risk of getting throat cancer. The risk is highest if you have smoked at least one pack a day for 10 years.

How can you limit your risk?
Dr Kofi Agyeman, otolaryngologist and consultant says there are five ways you can reduce your risk of HPV-related throat cancer:

1. Limit the number of sexual partners in your life
The more sexual partners you have, the higher your risk of oral sex partners. Also, use condoms or dental dams consistently to protect yourself.

2. Get children and young adults vaccinated
For men and women between the ages of 9 and 45, three HPV vaccinations can ward off HPV infection and likely lead to a lower risk of developing these HPV-related cancers.

3. Go for screening
Regular screenings increase your chances of catching a tumour early. Your doctor will palpate your throat, examine your pharynx and inspect your mouth.

4.Visit your dentist and ENT specialist regularly
Go for regular dental and ENT check-ups, because dentists and ENT specialists are often the first to notice abnormalities in your tongue and tonsils.

5. Give up smoking and limit alcohol consumption
Give up smoking and reduce your alcohol intake to reduce your risk.

Overall, HPV-related laryngeal cancers respond well to surgery and radiation. Between 90 and 95% of diagnosed cases survive disease-free for five years. Although researchers are still learning more about HPV-related throat cancer, it is not yet clear whether HPV is really to blame, says Dr Agyeman.
“I do not think anyone in our field or any epidemiologist would deny the link between HPV and throat cancer at this point,” he says. “It’s a strong link.”
“The good news is that HPV-related throat cancers respond well to treatment if detected early,” says Dr Agyeman

Continue to practice safe sex

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