HPV and cervical cancer

HPV (Human Papillomavirus) and its effects are largely misunderstood. Unfortunately, this has to do with the stigma surrounding the virus. But just because society doesn’t want to talk about it, it doesn't mean you have to remain in the dark when it comes to health conditions. Here's what all the fuss is about when it comes to HPV and cervical cancer.

Two young people are sitting at a desk. They are discussing HPV and cancer. This is a wide-angle image.

What is HPV?

Let’s start off by clarifying that there’s no such thing as HPV cancer – just HPV, which is sometimes linked to cancer. But the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) isn’t one single virus. It’s more a family of different strains (over 100, in fact) and each one affects your body in different ways. For example, certain types of HPV can cause genital warts, while others cause HPV pimples

It’s spread through skin-to-skin contact and having sex. The virus is found in your skin, as well as your cervix, anus, mouth and throat. And it’s common. Roughly 70% of unvaccinated, sexually active people will get HPV during their life time.

HPV and cervical cancer

Firstly, let’s put this in perspective: most people infected with HPV don’t know they’ve ever caught it. Usually you remain asymptomatic while your immune system flushes it out (although this does take about 1-2 years) – you may even have it now and be blissfully ignorant. On the off-chance you do have symptoms in the form of HPV pimples, it can be easy to confuse these with genital warts.

However, some high-risk strains of HPV manage to make a home in your body. These strains can cause cells to mutate and become cancerous. From there, you could be diagnosed with various types of cancer but scientists have found that links between HPV and Cervical cancer (one of the most common cancers in women) are the most prevalent. 

Can you catch HPV through having oral sex?

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 or a dental dam. Confused about what a dental dam is? Find out here.

“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. The moral of the story is that always practising safe oral sex is a good idea.”

This may sound scary, but research is still ongoing so we still don’t have the full picture. Regardless, having unprotected oral sex can also lead to herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis, so it’s always worth following the NHS’s guide to safe oral sex.

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 still have to figure out – there are so many unanswered questions. Evidence at the moment is suggesting those who have high amounts of oral sex have a higher risk of contracting an oral HPV infection; the risk of developing oral cancer from that is unclear,” says Jessica Harris, a senior health information officer at Cancer Research.

Although there have been studies on oral cancer sufferers, looking at whether or not they have HPV, the results vary wildly, from 15 to 85 per cent.”

How can I protect myself against HPV and other STIs?

The answer is pretty simple – by practising safe sex and safe oral sex. Using condoms whilst giving a blowjob is a pretty well-known tip (plus they come in a bunch of different flavours, for both parties’ pleasure), but you can also protect yourself whilst orally pleasuring a woman. 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.

Since 2019, the HPV vaccine has also been available for all Year 8 students in England. This is a great way to protect yourself against the virus. Not to mention, it’s even part of the NHS vaccination programme, meaning it’s free up until the age of 25. So if your 14-year-old self  boycotted it because they thought they were too cool for school, now might be the time to get protected. 

Can I still have the HPV vaccine if I’m sexually active?

Definitely. In fact it’s encouraged. Whilst the vaccine is usually done before starting to have sex, it still has value after becoming sexually active. Even if you’ve been infected with HPV, the vaccine can work to protect you from its other strains. Having said this, it’s important to keep in mind that a vaccine isn’t meant to be the cure for an illness. They’re used for disease control and prevention only, not to get rid of something that’s already there. 

Of course there are also screening tests for different types of cancer. For example, a PAP smear, which doubles as a HPV test. These all let you know if you have precancerous cells. Problem is, they aren’t available 24/7. If you use this method of protection against HPV, you might detect something after it’s too late. That’s why the vaccine is so, so important to have. 

I’m still scared about HPV-cancer links

We’re not going to lie – as mentioned previously, oral cancer has been on the rise recently. So your concerns aren’t totally unfounded. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Now, more than ever, there’s  awareness of this type of cancer, which is a great step in the right direction. Not to mention, it’s still a pretty uncommon form of cancer in the UK. 

You’re probably still worried, and that’s totally normal. But 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, if that’s your kryptonite, is your best bet to reduce your risk of cancer.

Next Steps

  • Are you Getting Some? Get Tested! Search for a sexual health clinic near you
  • Brook provides free sexual health and wellbeing services for young people in the UK. Brook's services include local clinics and online digital sex and relationships tool.
  • FPA give sexual health advice. For Northern Ireland helpline call 0345 122 8687.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

Tags:

cancer| oral sex| STIs

By Holly Bourne

Updated on 17-Dec-2021