Actor Michael Douglas caused quite a stir last week, after the media reported that he said his throat cancer was caused by cunnilingus (performing oral sex on women). Although Michael’s publicist is now stating he didn’t say exactly this, people are already asking, ‘Is oral sex dangerous?’ So, we’re here to tell you the facts.


HPV is a common virus. There are several types. But only some types of HPV are linked to cancer. The types most often associated with cancer are HPV 16 and HPV 18. Cervical cancer is the best known cancer linked to HPV. But HPV is also linked to cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus, mouth, throat and penis.  Although HPV is infectious, the cancers it causes cannot be passed on.

The HPV virus mainly spreads through sexual contact. It can be passed on during oral sex and through genital contact by opposite or same-sex partners. People who have HPV 16 or HPV 18 generally don’t know they have it, as it doesn’t cause any signs or symptoms. There isn’t a blood test that can detect HPV.

HPV is very common in the UK. Nearly all sexually active men and women will get it at some point in their life. But most people who have HPV don’t develop cancer because of it. Their immune system gets rid of the virus before it causes any problems. In some people, whose immune system isn’t working well, the virus stays in the body for a long time. And it may eventually cause a cancer to develop.

Mouth and throat cancer

In the UK, most cancers in the mouth and throat are caused by drinking and smoking. The more alcohol a person drinks and the more they smoke, the higher their risk. The numbers of people being diagnosed with mouth and throat cancers in the UK has increased since the mid-1970s.* The biggest rise has been in cancers at the base of the tongue, which have risen by almost 90%, and in cancers of the tonsils, which have gone up by 70%.** Many of these cancers are due to HPV rather than alcohol and tobacco. Doctors think the increase in HPV-related cancers in the mouth and throat may be due to oral sex.

Although both men and women can get HPV related cancer of the mouth or throat, men seem to be more at risk. Doctors don’t understand the reasons for this yet.

Treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery often work better in mouth and throat cancers caused by HPV than those caused by smoking and drinking.

HPV vaccines

HPV vaccines protect against infection with HPV. They prepare the immune system to recognise the virus so it can act quickly to clear HPV from the body.  

There is a UK-wide HPV vaccination programme for girls aged 12–13. This has been going since September 2008. The aim is to prevent cervical cancers in the future. The vaccine works better when given to younger people before they’re sexually active. It doesn’t work if you’ve already got HPV.

Boys aren’t currently offered the HPV vaccination in the UK, although some people think they should be. Australia is the only country in the world that offers the vaccination to both boys and girls.

What you can do

If you’re sexually active, it’s difficult to avoid getting HPV.  But, the younger you are when you start having sex, and the more partners you have, the higher your risk.

Using condoms and other barrier forms of contraception helps reduce the risk of getting HPV. So does not smoking – smoking stifles your immune system, so it won’t be as good at fighting the virus.

If you’re a woman, you should make sure you go for your cervical screening appointments. 

It’s very important to be aware of changes in your body that could be due to cancer. Keep an eye out for anything that’s unusual for you, and always see your doctor about any symptoms or changes you’re worried about.

Some changes to look out for include:

  • an ulcer or sore that doesn’t heal
  • a swelling or lump
  • difficulty or pain when swallowing
  • a sore throat that doesn’t get better
  • a hoarse voice
  • bleeding in between your periods or after sex.

It’s up to you whether you have oral sex. What’s important is that you stay aware of your body and any changes that are unusual for you. Most symptoms won’t be due to cancer, but if they are, the earlier it’s diagnosed the more likely treatment is to be successful.

We hope the information in this blog has answered any questions you may have about this issue. If you have any more questions or concerns, you can talk them through with our cancer support specialists.

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* Cancer Research UK.
** BBC.