Is Oral Sex the Leading Cause Of Throat Cancer?

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According to a tweet published on March 8, oral cancer is supposedly the leading cause of throat cancer. The Twitter thread adds that the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which is found in the genitals is the cause of cervical and throat cancer.

Background

In medical terms, there is no distinctive type of cancer called throat cancer- information on the Throat Cancer Foundation website states. Instead, there are different types of cancer that affect the throat.

Classified as part of head and neck cancers, a World Health Organization(WHO) report indicates that such cancers are the sixth most prevalent worldwide based on the number of cases reported. The most prevalent cancers by case and fatalities are breast, lung and colorectal cancers respectively.

Head and neck cancers are more prevalent among men than women and are common in countries such as Canada, Denmark and Netherlands respectively- the WHO report states. According to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), such cancers affect the mouth, lip, tongue, the voice box (larynx) and other areas connecting the nose and throat.

Verification

True to the claim made on Twitter, a WHO report cites that HPV is among the carcinogenic infections that increase the risk of getting cancer, especially cervical cancer.

“Nearly all cases of cervical cancer can be attributed to HPV infection,” WHO states, adding that it is the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract and that “most sexually active women and men will be infected at some point in their lives and some may be repeatedly infected.” There are more than 100 types of HPV, out of which at least 14 are cancer-causing, according to WHO. Based on the WHO reports HPV transmission is not just limited to oral or penetrative sex, but can also get transmitted from skin-to-skin genital contact.

While there is published data and evidence for HPV being the leading cause of cervical cancer as claimed in the tweet, the second claim that HPV is the leading cause of throat cancer has not been established.

Without particularly referring to throat-related cancers, a 2014 WHO report cites that Head and Neck cancers in general are largely associated with tobacco and alcohol consumption.

There is however a new trend showing a rise in HPV-related throat cancers according to an NHS report. This report also indicates that the main causes of throat cancers are alcohol and tobacco, but adds that HPV-related throat cancers are on the rise among younger patients, with 1 in 3 throat cancers being caused by HPV.

“The types of HPV found in the mouth are almost entirely sexually transmitted, so it’s likely that oral sex is the primary route of getting them”, the NHS states.

Similarly, the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) found that 70% of oropharyngeal cancer cases, which affects the throat, tongue and tonsils are linked to HPV. The CDC however still maintains that tobacco and alcohol are the main risk factors of head and neck cancers despite the rise in HPV-related cases.

There is no report indicating that HPV-related throat cancer cases have surpassed those caused by alcohol and tobacco.

Verdict

While recent trends show that oral sex is increasingly causing cancers that affect the throat area, this has not been established as the leading cause. Therefore claims that oral sex is the leading cause of throat cancer are FALSE.

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Linda Ngari