Oral cancer isn’t contagious. It isn’t something you can get from having oral sex. But you could experience exposure to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like human papillomavirus (HPV) that can increase your risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer later in life.
“Oral sex is a very safe way to maximize pleasure without risking pregnancy,” says Michelle Forcier, MD, a gender-affirming clinician with the virtual healthcare service FOLX.
However, just as there is with other sex acts, there’s a risk of STI transmission and exposure, they say.
The following STIs are commonly transmissible from the mouth to the genitals or vice versa:
To be clear: Cancer isn’t a sexually transmitted disease, says Adrienne Ton, a family nurse practitioner with the telehealth service TBD Health. “You cannot catch cancer from having oral sex the way you can an STI,” she says.
However, getting certain oral STIs can increase your overall risk of developing oral cancer later in life.
There’s some degree of risk in leaving any oral STI undiagnosed and, therefore, untreated, she says. But the STI most commonly associated with oral cancer is HPV.
HPV is transmissible through skin-to-skin contact or fluid exchange with a person who has the virus. It’s often asymptomatic, and many people don’t know they’ve contracted it.
Many people will naturally clear the infection from their bodies within 2 years, says Ton.
There are more than 100 different strains of HPV, and experts haven’t linked the majority to cancer of any kind, she adds.
At least 40 strains of HPV are known to affect the genitals. Of these, experts consider only two strains ”high risk.”
HPV-18 primarily links with cervical cancer.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experts think that HPV causes
It’s unclear whether oral HPV alone can cause oropharyngeal cancer or whether other factors interact with the virus to produce cancer.
An example might include tobacco use
It takes approximately 10 years from the initial HPV infection to the development of cancerous cells in the oropharyngeal region, explains Forcier.
Oral HSV and syphilis may also link with an increased risk of oral cancer.
HSV-1 may increase your risk of
Untreated syphilis can lead to long-term complications, including hearing loss and blindness. Although research from 2006 found a link between syphilis and tongue cancer, there isn’t strong evidence to support this.
Getting vaccinated against the HPV vaccine can be the most effective way to prevent HPV-16 and other high risk strains, says Forcier.
A 2017 study examined the HPV infection and vaccination status of 2,627 people ages 18–33. Receiving at least one dose of the vaccine by 26 years old corresponded to a roughly
“You can reduce your risk of exposure by using barriers like condoms or dental dams during oral sex,” says Forcier. “Barriers are especially useful if you have many partners or a partner whose current STI status is not well known to you.”
If you have HPV, can you do anything to reduce the risk of transmission to your partners?
“If you have open sores, a sore throat, or other unusual symptoms, you should avoid performing oral sex,” says Forcier. It’s also a good idea to avoid deep tongue-kissing until your symptoms subside.
Cutting back or quitting tobacco use altogether can be the most effective way to reduce your risk of cancers like oral cancer.
Annual dental appointments may also be beneficial. Your dentist can use these appointments to clean your teeth and monitor changes.
If you develop any unusual or unexpected lesions or sores, consider making an appointment with a dentist or another healthcare professional.
You can’t get oral cancer from oral sex. Exposure to certain STIs, however, can increase your risk of developing cancer down the line.
You can reduce your risk of STIs by getting vaccinated for HPV, talking with your partners about STI status, and using condoms or other barrier methods.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.