Oral sex has become a major risk factor for throat cancer in the UK and the US, claims a new study. While cervical cancer used to be the most reported type of cancer in the two countries, throat cancer, due to its rapid increase in the past two decades, has been called an "epidemic", experts say.
Dr Hisham Mehanna from the University of Birmingham wrote in the that this was mainly because of human papillomavirus (HPV), which is also the main cause of cancer of the cervix.
HPV is a common virus that spreads through vaginal, anal and oral sex with someone who is already infected.
The study claimed that oral sex has prompted a large rise in a specific type of throat cancer called oropharyngeal cancer, which affects the area of the tonsils and back of the throat.
"Over the past two decades, there has been a rapid increase in throat cancer in the west, to the extent that some have called it . This has been due to a large rise in a specific type of throat cancer called oropharyngeal cancer (the area of the tonsils and back of the throat). The main cause of this cancer is the (HPV), which are also the main cause of cancer of the cervix. Oropharyngeal cancer has now become more common than cervical cancer in the US and the UK," Dr Mehanna wrote.
Dr. Mehanna further explained that "HPV is sexually transmitted. For oropharyngeal cancer, the main risk factor is the number of lifetime sexual partners, especially oral sex."
He added that those with six or more lifetime oral-sex partners are 8.5 times more likely to develop oropharyngeal cancer than those who do not practise oral sex.
According to the UK's health body, National Health Service (NHS), around 8,300 people are diagnosed with throat cancer each year in the UK which is about one in 50 cancers diagnosed.
Dr Mehanna explained that this could lead to an HPV infection at the back of the throat or near the tonsil. These infections go away on their own in most cases but can sometimes persist and cause cancer.
"In a study that my colleagues and I conducted in almost 1,000 people having tonsillectomy for non-cancer reasons in the UK, 80% of adults reported practising oral sex at some point in their lives. Yet, mercifully, only a small number of those people develop oropharyngeal cancer. Why that is, is not clear," said the report.