As far as alarming headlines are concerned, there are few scarier than those warning that oral sex is causing an epidemic of throat cancer.
Last week, British cancer researcher Hisham Mehanna published a sobering column in The Conversation — "Oral sex is now the leading risk factor for throat cancer" — about the increase in throat cancer as a result of HPV infection, often contracted via oral sex.
"For oropharyngeal cancer, the main risk factor is the number of lifetime sexual partners, especially oral sex," the University of Birmingham cancer expert wrote. "Those with six or more lifetime oral-sex partners are 8.5 times more likely to develop oropharyngeal cancer than those who do not [practice] oral sex."
That's indeed alarming. But there's good news for any oral sex enjoyers out there: there's an HPV vaccine, Gardasil, that can greatly decrease the risk.
Mehanna, to his credit, does allude to the vaccine — but only briefly, far below the headline, and with an emphasis on growing vaccine hesitancy.
The reality, according to the CDC, is that "vaccination could prevent more than 90 percent of cancers caused by HPV from ever developing."
That's not a complete guarantee — after all, there's no such thing as perfectly safe sex, only safer sex — but widespread vaccination could cut HPV-related cancers into a tiny fraction.
Dentists in particular, the CDC notes, have become invested in suggesting HPV vaccination to patients, citing a growing body of evidence that it can prevent oral or throat cancer.
Mehanna does make another good point in his column: that HPV vaccination, which was initially only recommended for girls and young women due to the virus' propensity for causing cervical cancer, is now also available to boys and young men. While there are still more girls vaccinated against the sexually-transmitted infection than boys, HPV vaccination appears to be on the rise for boys, too.
In other words, it's true that oral sex isn't risk free. But there's an easy step that anyone partaking in it can take to drastically cut the risk — and the more people are aware of that, the better.
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