13th December, 20216 min read

Oral cancer: Can you get oral cancer from oral sex?

Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

Overview

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a viral infection that can be spread by all types of sex, including oral sex. It can affect the mouth, throat and genital area. It can cause warts and less commonly, it can cause changes to your cells which can progress to cancer. It’s best known for causing cervical cancer but if you catch it during oral sex, it can actually cause oral cancers too. This doesn’t happen often and is more likely to be caused by chewing tobacco, smoking or drinking alcohol.

Read on to learn about the link between oral sex and cancer, what you can do to prevent it and when to see a doctor.

HPV and oral cancer

There are more than 100 types of

HPV
and it’s the most common
sexually transmitted infection (STI)
– around 80% of people will be infected with HPV at some point in their life. As well as infecting your genitals, HPV can also infect your mouth and throat.

Most types of HPV are harmless and will usually go away on their own without you even knowing you were ever infected with HPV. But there are some types that can cause

genital warts
, and at least 15 are thought to cause cancer. However, even these 'high-risk' types of HPV won't cause a problem in most people.

There’s always a

risk of getting an STI
when you’re sexually active, even when you use protection in the form of a condom or dental dam (a thin latex sheet that acts as a barrier between the mouth and genitals). HPV is easily spread through skin-to-skin contact, usually during vaginal, anal or
oral sex
when your vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, anus or mouth touches the genitals or mouth and throat of someone who’s infected.

Read more on

infections that can be caught through oral sex
.

If you have oral sex and become infected with HPV in your mouth or throat it can trigger changes in your cells in the area that can cause oral cancer to develop in the future. Oral cancers, or mouth and throat cancers, are sometimes called head and neck cancers and include cancers of the:

  • mouth
  • lip
  • tongue
  • larynx (voice box)
  • nasopharynx (the area that connects the nose and throat)
  • pharynx (throat)
  • salivary glands
  • nose and sinuses

Symptoms of HPV and oral cancer

HPV has no symptoms so you may not know you have it. However, some types can cause genital warts. These can appear on the penis (especially under the foreskin or in the urethra), the vulva, vaginal wall, cervix, and skin around the vaginal area or around and inside the anus. These warts may be painless but can sometimes cause burning pain, itching, or discomfort. As well as causing genital warts, HPV can sometimes cause cancer. So, if you notice any lumps on your genitals you should see a doctor so they can give you the correct diagnosis.

Symptoms of oral, or head and neck cancer to look out for include:

  • painful mouth ulcers that don’t heal within a few weeks
  • lumps or swellings in your jaw, mouth or neck that don’t go away
  • loose teeth or sockets that don’t heal after tooth removal
  • persistent numbness or an odd feeling on your lips or tongue
  • white or red patches on the lining of your mouth or tongue
  • changes in your voice or speech, such as a lisp or hoarseness that lasts a few weeks
  • difficulty or pain when swallowing that’s not going away or is getting worse
  • noisy breathing
  • shortness of breath
  • a persistent cough that lasts longer than 3 weeks
  • a persistent sore throat
  • numbness in part of your face and drooping on one side
  • a persistent blocked nose (usually only on 1 side)
  • nosebleeds
  • a decreased sense of smell
  • mucus running from the nose or down the throat
  • hearing loss (usually only in 1 ear)

Can you reduce your risk of getting HPV and oral cancers?

Things you can do to help

prevent HPV
and the cancers it can cause are:

  • get vaccinated – the HPV vaccine does not protect against all types of HPV but it will protect you against the types of HPV that cause most cases of genital warts and HPV-related cancers
  • use protection – using
    condoms
    or dental dams (a small thin square of latex that acts as a barrier between the mouth and genitals) during vaginal, anal and oral sex can help lower your risk of getting HPV. It’s important to know that condoms won’t fully protect you, as they don’t cover all the skin around the genitals
  • smear tests – cervical screenings (a smear test) won’t check for oral HPV but they can check the health of your cervix. As HPV often has no symptoms, it’s important to attend your cervical screenings. They usually take a sample of cells to check for the types of HPV that can cause changes to the cells of your cervix that may lead to cervical cancer. If “high risk” types of HPV are found, the cells in your cervix will be checked for changes and then treated to prevent them turning into cervical cancer

When to see a doctor

You should speak to a doctor if you’re worried about HPV and oral cancer and see a doctor as soon as possible if you have any of the symptoms of oral cancer listed above. If you have genital warts, your doctor or a sexual health clinic can help.

Your health questions answered

  • Can you die from oral cancer?

    The survival rate for oral cancer depends on what type of cancer you have, where it is and how quickly you’re diagnosed. A doctor will be able to provide an accurate prognosis and recommend the best course of treatment for you.

Key takeaways

  • around 8 out of 10 people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives
  • most types of HPV are harmless and go away on their own but some can lead to genital warts or cancer
  • if your mouth and throat are infected with HPV it can trigger changes in your cells causing oral cancer to develop in the future
  • HPV can lead to cancer of the mouth, lip, tongue, larynx, nasopharynx, pharynx, salivary glands and nose and sinuses
  • getting the HPV vaccine and using a condom or dental dam when you have sex can help protect you against HPV and HPV-related cancer
  • speak to a doctor if you’re worried about HPV and oral cancer, or have any symptoms

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.