Recently, AOL had a rather alarming headline that announced, “New study suggests kissing can lead to cancer.” Gulte proclaimed, “Kissing too many people causes cancer.” And I F*cking Love Science ran with the intriguing question, “Does kissing really create a greater risk of developing mouth cancer than smoking?” and the caption “How kissing can cause cancer.”
How kissing causes cancer? Oh dear, it sounds like this article is going to throw a serious damper on Date Night.
Or not. I am just going to get to the point: Although sexual contact (be it oral sex, vaginal sex, kissing, etc.) can lead to a number of different sexually transmitted diseases and infections, the chance of getting cancer from kissing is small. Absurdly small. So while it is important to be informed about sexually transmitted diseases and how to protect yourself, you don’t need to worry about getting cancer from kissing.
Ultimately, all of the most recent claims stem from remarks made about the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. Generally, it is transmitted through the genitals or the mouth. And, according to the articles mentioned above, HPV can lead to cancer.
However, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has this to say: “It is unclear if having HPV alone is sufficient to cause oropharyngeal cancers [cancers that occur in the middle throat/neck area], or if other factors (such as smoking or chewing tobacco) interact with HPV to cause these cancers…Studies in the U.S. have found that about 7% of people have oral HPV. But only 1% of people have the type of oral HPV that is found in oropharyngeal cancers.”
Similarly, the Mount Sinai Hospital has this to say, “We are not sure what leads to the development of cancer and whether there are other factors. Almost everyone is infected with HPV16 at some point in their lives so the relationship between HPV16 infection, sexual activity, and getting cancer is more complex than simple exposure. We do not know what those additional risk factors are yet.”
So it seems that there is no clear correlation to HPV, kissing, and oral cancer; or at least, the research is rather scattered at the present and needs to be clarified and interrogated more. Moreover, even if HPV does cause cancer, very few people have the forms of HPV that have been linked to cancer (just 1%), so there is no need for alarm.
And that’s not all. There are some vaccinations that can help prevent HPV infections. So even if HPV caused oral cancer (remember, there is no clear link) there are easy ways to effectively protect yourself. Finally, a majority of the time, we overcome HPV on our own, as our immune system can handle the virus without assistance.
Phew. That’s one scary story put to rest.
Now then, I understand the desire to run a catchy headline in order to get people reading. So maybe these articles can be rationalized, as (perhaps) people read them and learned something about HPV or the vaccine that is available. Feel free to debate that, but here’s the important thing to remember: You always have to be skeptical. Be sure to fact check your information (yes, even from us). No one is infallible. We all get things wrong from time to time, and things may (whether intentionally or not) get exaggerated. So in the end, you are your own best fact-checker.
But there is another issue.
Unfortunately, none of these sites (or their respective authors) linked to the actual study. They also didn’t clarify where the research was published. This made it a tad hard to assess the research and determine exactly what the claims were, as, well…I couldn’t find it.
I called on my community of 13,000+ science enthusiasts to try and help me track the study down. Unfortunately, they were also unable to locate it. Instead of providing the study, the sites previously mentioned just linked to NTNews, which was (apparently) the first one to run the story (shockingly, the Daily Mail article also didn’t provide the necessary information). Of course, posting about a study without linking to the actual study is a horrible practice, and it leaves us with two end points:
1) The study does not exist.
2) The study is just extremely hard to find.
Regardless of which is true, this fact remains: Anyone who wanted to fact-check this would have a very hard time doing so, as the study is not included in any article. The original source (which, as near as I can find, is NTNews) asserts that the study comes from the Head of Maxillofacial and Head and Neck Surgery at the Royal Darwin Hospital, Dr Mahiban Thomas. I did find this article from 2014, but I have no real idea if this is the study being discussed in the aforementioned articles, as Thomas has several publications related to HPV and cancer.
No email for Dr. Thomas was readily available. I will update this article as new information comes in. In the meantime: Be safe. Be informed. But don’t fret too much about kissing.