Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and cancer
HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections, but it's been hitting the headlines recently because of new links to oral cancer. Here's what all the fuss is about.
What is HPV?
The Human Papilloma Virus isn't one virus, more a family of different strains that affect your body in different ways. One strain causes warts and verrucas, and another causes genital warts. But there are also some nastier strains that can cause cancer. Spread through skin-to-skin contact and having sex, it's found in your skin, as well as your cervix, anus, mouth and throat. And it's common. Over 80 per cent of the population will catch HPV at some point in their lives.
Does HPV cause cancer?
Firstly, let's put this in perspective: most people with HPV don't know they've ever caught it. Usually our immune system flushes it out without displaying any symptoms - you may even have it now and be blissfully unaware of it.
However, some high-risk strains of HPV stay put and can cause cells in your body to mutate and become cancerous. Cervical cancer is most commonly associated with HPV.
Can you catch HPV through having oral sex?
Well, this little nugget of information is what's been causing all the hoo-hah. In the past it was thought HPV could only be passed from genital-to-genital contact. But now there's evidence to suggest that HPV, including the cancerous strains, can be passed from mouth-to-genital contact - from blowjobs or going down on a girl. To make sure you're fully protected during oral sex, always use a condom.
"It makes sense. The mucus membranes around the genitals are very similar to those in the mouth," says Dr Gillian Vanhegan from Brook. "The warm, wet environment can attract similar infections so always practising safe oral sex is a good idea."
This may sound scary, but it's important to point out this hasn't yet been proved and research is still ongoing. However, having unprotected oral sex can also lead to Herpes, Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea and Syphilis, so it's worth following the NHS's guide to safe oral sex regardless.
Can HPV give you mouth/throat/head/oral cancer?
There has been an increase in the number of people developing oral cancer, and some scientists are linking this to oral sex and contracting HPV. But the truth is - we just don't know yet.
"There's still a lot we don't know - there are so many unanswered questions. Evidence at the moment is suggesting people who've had lots of oral sex partners have a higher risk of contracting an oral HPV infection, but the actual cancer risk is unclear," says Jessica Harris, a senior health information officer at Cancer Research.
"There have been studies on oral cancer sufferers, looking at whether or not they have HPV, and the results vary wildly, from 15 to 85 per cent."
How can I protect myself against HPV and other STIs?
By practising safe sex and safe oral sex. Using condoms whilst giving a blowjob is pretty known-about (mmm, Piña-Colada condoms!), but you can protect yourself whilst orally pleasuring a woman as well. A dental dam - a small piece of latex to cover the vagina during oral sex - is something you can pick up at sexual health clinics, or online. Or you can make your own by cutting up a condom.
For younger girls, the HPV vaccine given at secondary school protects against most strains that cause cervical cancer. Currently, it's not offered to boys because no one knows if it protects against oral cancer. "The idea the HPV vaccine helps prevent oral cancer sounds perfectly plausible but we don't have the data to support that at the moment," explains Jessica. "The evidence doesn't exist. And you can't vaccinate boys as well as girls pre-emptively."
Can I still have the HPV vaccine if I'm sexually active?
Sorry, no. The vaccination only works if you've not already been exposed to HPV - i.e. you're not sexually active. If you're female, having regular smear tests once you hit 25 is the best way to look after your cervical health. Smear tests save thousands of lives every year by discovering pre-cancerous cells. Even girls who've had the jab will still need smear tests because the injection doesn't protect against all high-risk HPV strains.
I'm still scared about HPV and cancer.
OK, so the headlines are alarming and may have you doubling up on your cocktail condoms, but the fact is that oral cancer is not a very common cancer. Yes, the rates are rising, but in the UK it only makes up roughly 4% of all cancers diagnosed.
And before you refuse to go down on your partner for fear of contracting cancer it's worth remembering that Smoking and drinking lots of alcohol are much more likely to cause oral cancer than anything else. Safe sex is always important, but quitting smoking is your best bet if you want to reduce your risk of cancer.
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