Oral Sex a Factor in Oral Cancer Increase

Virus-related malignancies are on the rise. Here are four protective measures.

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Correction on 2/19/08: An earlier version of this story should have specified that only HPV-related oral cancer has been on the rise over the past 30 years. Oral cancers not associated with that virus have declined since 1983.

Oral cancers caused by human papillomavirus, or HPV, have been on the rise in men over the past 30 years, according to research published in a February issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology. In both genders, HPV can be transmitted through oral sex; the virus is also the prime cause of cervical cancer. Separate research has suggested that HPV-associated oral cancers are also rising in younger age groups of both genders. Tobacco and alcohol use can also lead to oral cancer, which most often strikes after age 40.

"Oral cancer kills about half the people who get it in the first five years," says Richard Price, a spokesman for the American Dental Association, "not because it's so virulent but because it's [often not] detect[ed]." That's why vigilance is crucial. To protect yourself:

  • See a dentist regularly. Be sure he or she checks your tongue and the area under your tongue, as well as your lips and palate and the back of your throat.
  • Get swabbed. Ask your dentist for the BrushTest, which detects abnormal cells, if you notice a change in the mouth such as a sore that won't heal or bleeds easily; a lump, thickening, crust, or erosion; pain or tenderness; or a change in the way your teeth are positioned.
  • Ditch cigarettes and alcohol. The combination accounts for 75 percent of cases, and tobacco use is the single biggest risk factor for oral cancer.
  • Load up on fruits and veggies. Studies show they may prevent cancerous lesions from developing.