How Oral Sex Can Transmit HPV
HPV (human papillomavirus) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. HPV is not a single disease but a group of more than 200 virus strains that cause warts throughout the body. Some 40 types of HPV virus cause a genital or oral infection, which can be transmitted through sexual contact or kissing. Most strains of HPV cause no symptoms or harm and clear up on their own within a year or two. But several strains can lead to cancer, including cancers of the mouth and throat.
Learn about oral human papillomavirus (which affects more men than women) and how to protect yourself from becoming infected.
A person with genital HPV may or may not have visible warts in the genital area, including around the opening to the vagina, around the anus, or on the penis. A person who performs oral sex on someone with genital HPV can contract HPV in the mouth (also called oral HPV). Likewise, a person who has oral HPV and performs oral sex can transmit the infection to the genital area of his or her partner. Oral HPV also can be spread through deep kissing. Neither person may realize they’re infected, and visible warts may never develop.
Certain strains of HPV can cause cancers of the mouth and throat (also called oropharyngeal cancers). One specific type of HPV (called “type 16”) is associated with most cases of oropharyngeal cancers. A person with HPV type 16 likely will not know they’re infected with the virus. If the virus causes an oral cancer, symptoms can include:
- Difficult or painful swallowing
- Hoarseness that doesn’t clear up within a couple of weeks
- High-pitched sounds when breathing normally
- Jaw pain or swelling
- Lump in the cheek, neck, or throat
- Persistent sore throat that doesn’t clear up
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
These signs and symptoms usually do not represent any type of cancer, but you should seek medical attention if symptoms don’t resolve.
Because oral HPV is asymptomatic and cannot be detected by testing, your partner probably will not know if he or she is infected. And HPV can spread even when symptoms like genital warts are not active. Nonetheless, you can take precautions to reduce your risk of becoming infected with HPV:
- Avoid deep tongue-kissing
- Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drug use, all of which raise your risk of getting an HPV infection
- Eat healthy to maintain a robust immune system
- Get vaccinated for HPV, which protects against genital forms of human papillomavirus and may also protect against oral HPV – especially in men
- Limit the number of sex partners you engage with
- Use a condom or dental dam during every sexual encounter
Using a condom or dental dam during oral sex and intercourse cannot entirely prevent the transmission of HPV because the virus can live on areas of skin not covered by the barrier. However, conscientious condom use can reduce your risk of becoming infected with HPV and other sexually transmitted infections.
Oral and genital HPV are very common infections, but they usually go away without causing any health complications. It’s still a good idea for both women and men under age 45 to get vaccinated against HPV (which causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer) and to engage in safer sex practices at all times to avoid becoming infected with something even more serious than HPV.