The human papillomavirus (HPV) sometimes seems harmless because there are rarely any symptoms associated with it, but researchers believe the virus is responsible for the increased rates of mouth and throat cancer during the past 25 years, and new research says 7% of Americans now have HPV in their mouths.
The study, published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association is the first to assess the prevalence of oral HPV in the U.S. population, and from the ages of 14 to 69, across men and women, the incidence was found to be 6.9%.
The findings also indicate that oral sex, rather than kissing, is the main cause for the spread of the virus—most likely because people still don’t understand that the practice can lead to disease.
“I don’t think people think of oral sex in the same way they do with traditional intercourse,” said Fred Wyand, director of the HPV Resource Center at the American Social Health Association in Research Triangle Park, NC. “Sometimes younger people engage in oral sex so they don’t have to worry about pregnancy. They may not even make the link between oral sex and STDs.”
Since most oral HPV infections are harmless and oral cancers are still somewhat rare, there isn’t a total cause for alarm, but there could be down the line. This is why the researchers say doctors, parents, and sexual partners need to talk about the use of protection upfront.
“It’s something people are not comfortable talking about, but it is protective,” Dr. Hans Schlecht, assistant professor of medicine at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia who wrote an editorial accompanying the study said in an interview. “If you are going to be intimate with someone, there are some adult conversations you need to have.”
Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.
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