A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Oral sex and HPV: What you should know about oral cancer

Person preparing for a vaccination - Can the HPV vaccine prevent oral cancer?

Getting the HPV vaccine may help to prevent oropharyngeal cancer, a certain type of oral cancer.

If you have oral sex with someone who has human papillomavirus (HPV), it can cause a specific type of oral cancer called oropharyngeal cancer.

Oropharyngeal cancer is cancer on specific parts of the back of your throat including the tonsils and back third of your tongue. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), HPV causes 70 percent of this type of oral cancer in the U.S.

“This is something most people are not aware of,” said Neel Shimpi, B.D.S., Ph.D., oral health associate research scientist at Marshfield Clinic Research Institute. “Promoting HPV education among high school students is essential to increase awareness about HPV infection and ways to prevent it.”

HPV can be transmitted by direct sexual contact with an infected partner. For example, contact with the mouth and throat. HPV can cause an infection, which can then cause cancer as soon as a few years later.

Preventing oropharyngeal cancer

The HPV vaccine can prevent cervical cancers. While research has not definitively shown that the HPV vaccine prevents it, doctors believe it is likely to prevent this type of oral cancer.

“Recent research studies suggest that HPV vaccination reduces infections in the mouth associated with HPV that are major risk factors for getting cancers,” said Shimpi.

The vaccine protects from cervical cancers caused by the same types of HPV that cause oropharyngeal cancer.

CDC recommends 11- to 12-year olds receive two doses of HPV vaccine at least six months apart. Those who start the series later, ages 15-26, need three doses.

Using condoms and dental dams also prevent transmitting HPV and causing oropharyngeal cancer. Alcohol and tobacco are other common risk factors of oral cancer.

Symptoms of oral cancer

Common symptoms include:

  • Sore throat for an extended period of time
  • Earaches
  • Hoarse throat
  • Swollen lymph nodes or lump in neck
  • Pain from swallowing
  • Unexplained weight loss

If you are concerned that you may have oropharyngeal cancer, talk to your doctor or dentist right away.

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