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News analysis: Michael Douglas, oral sex and throat cancer

Monday 3 June 2013

The actor Michael Douglas discussed his recent throat cancer treatment in an interview with The Guardian this weekend, and revealed that he blamed oral sex for his condition. 

When asked by the newspaper if his throat cancer was caused by his many years of heavy drinking and smoking he was quoted as saying: "No, because without wanting to get too specific this particular cancer is caused by HPV, which actually comes about from cunnilingus." Could he be right? Here are some facts about HPV, oral sex and cancer risk.

What is HPV?

The human papilloma virus (HPV) is the name for a group of viruses that affect your skin and the moist membranes lining your body, for example, in your cervix, anus, mouth and throat.

There are more than 100 types of HPV – 40 of which can affect the genital area.

The HPV virus is very common and is easily spread by sexual activity. As many as half the population will be infected at some time in their life. In most cases, the virus doesn't do any harm because your immune system gets rid of the infection. But in some cases, the infection persists and can lead to health problems.

Can HPV really cause cancer?

Yes. While many types of HPV are harmless, other high-risk types can cause abnormal tissue growth and trigger the onset of cancer.

Cancers linked to HPV infection include:

Some types of HPV can also cause verrucas, skin warts and genital warts.

How can HPV infection be prevented?

Using a condom during sex, including oral and anal sex, can help to prevent HPV infection. However, as condoms do not cover the entire genital area and are often put on after sexual contact has begun, a condom is not always a guarantee against the spread of HPV.

Is there a HPV vaccine?

There are actually two vaccines against HPV: Cervarix and Gardasil. Cervarix protects against two very high-risk types (HPV-16 and HPV-18).

Gardasil also protects against these types, as well as two types that cause genital warts.

The Gardasil vaccine is now part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme and is routinely offered to secondary school girls aged 12 and 13. Giving the vaccine several years before a person is likely to become sexually active increases its effectiveness.

The HPV vaccination programme is intended mainly to reduce the number of cervical cancer cases in the future.

Can boys have the vaccine?

There is no clinical reasons why boys cannot have the vaccine, but it is not currently recommended as part of the NHS vaccination schedule.

If you want your son to be vaccinated then you will have to pay for the vaccine. The course of vaccination consists of three doses with each dose costing around £150.

So did oral sex cause Michael Douglas's cancer?

Based on the available evidence it is impossible to say.

But given what we know about risk factors for these types of cancer, his years of smoking and drinking could well have played a significant part.

The two biggest risk factors for these types of cancer are drinking alcohol and smoking. The risk is even higher if you are both a heavy drinker and a heavy smoker.

For more information, see Can oral sex cause cancer?

What can I do to reduce my cancer risk?

The four most effective methods you can do to reduce your risks are:

And while wearing a condom may only provide limited protection against HPV it does offer more effective protection against other nasty STIs (as well as being a good method of contraception to prevent unplanned pregnancies).