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Back to Cancer. This story is based on a US study that looked at 9, people aged 20 to 59 who provided information about their number of oral sex partners and were tested for oral human papilloma virus HPV.
HPV is a virus that can infect moist membranes. Certain strains can increase the risk of cervical cancer in women, and if particular strains are found in the mouth, this may increase risk of mouth and throat cancers. The virus can also cause genital warts. They noted that this was more common in smokers and in men with an increased number of oral sex partners. However, the study can't prove causation and is not precise enough to link a specific number of partners with risk of carrying oral HPV — or of cancer.
They also looked at registry data to see how common mouth and throat cancers were in people carrying these harmful oral HPV strains and found that it is still very rare: estimated at 7 in 1, men and 2 in 1, women. If you are concerned about potential risk from oral sex, use a dental dam — a piece of latex that covers the vagina and anus and protects you against a range of sexually transmitted infections.
It was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Annals of Oncology, and the article is free to read online.
The UK media's headlines for this story were generally misleading. The research looked at a range of risk factors but the headlines focused mostly on oral sex. Many gave the impression that a direct link had been identified between a specific number of sexual partners and getting cancer. The research actually looked at the effect the number of partners had on how common the cancer-causing oral HPV was and made predictions about cancer risk from other data.