The factor that creates this link is the HPV virus which is associated with tonsil and tongue cancer. Alcohol and tobacco use is more highly linked with such oral cancers, but HPV does appear to be an independent risk factor.
A 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that younger people with head and neck cancers who tested positive for oral HPV infection were more likely to have had multiple vaginal and oral sex partners in their lifetime. Having six or more oral sex partners over a lifetime was associated with a 3.4 times higher risk for oropharyngeal cancer; cancers of the base of the tongue, back of the throat, or tonsils. Having 26 or more vaginal-sex partners tripled the risk. The association continued to increase as the number of partners in either category increased.
Of greater concern is that "French" kissing may also potentially be a mode of transmission.
The good news (if one is a young, non-smoker diagnosed with HPV-positive tumors) is that about 85% of non-smoking people with HPV-positive tumors survive. That number drops to 45 or 50% in people who smoke and are HPV-negative.
Th take-home message here is that even if you are a non-smoker and non-drinker, you can STILL develop head and neck cancer. Oral HPV infection is strongly associated with oropharyngeal cancer among subjects with or without the established risk factors of tobacco and alcohol use and that oral HPV infection can occur through sexual activity.
Furthermore, it is possible that the HPV vaccine (ie, gardasil) may also be protective (studies pending) for both women AND men.
Of note, there are currently 3 FDA approved HPV vaccines:
• The bivalent HPV vaccine (Cervarix) which addresses HPV 16 and 18;
• The quadrivalent HPV vaccine (Gardasil) which prevents four HPV types: HPV 16 and 18, as well as HPV 6 and 11;
• And finally Gardasil 9 which prevents 9 HPV types: 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58.
Read the USA Today article here.
Of note, our office does offer the HPV spit test to see if HPV is present in the mouth/throat.
Human papillomavirus and oropharyngeal cancer. N Engl J Med. 2007 Sep 13;357(11):1157; author reply 1157-8
Human papillomaviruses in head and neck carcinomas. N Engl J Med. 2007 May 10;356(19):1993-5.
Case-control study of human papillomavirus and oropharyngeal cancer. N Engl J Med. 2007 May 10;356(19):1944-56.