When it comes to HPV, there's still a lot we don't know about the virus. We do know it's very common, with some estimates saying that as many as 75 percent of the reproductive-age population has been infected with one or more types of genital HPV. We also know that while most cases resolve on their own, some cases can lead to cancerÃ¢â‚¬”and not just cervical cancer. Recently, there's been a huge rise in HPV-related oral cancer, and roughly a quarter of all oral cancers are now HPV-related, according to the American Cancer society. Unfortunately, research on the spread of this virusÃ¢â‚¬”and how to prevent itÃ¢â‚¬”is still limited.
But a fascinating new study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology looked at patients with HPV-positive oral cancer to assess the risk of passing the virus on to their partners. Surprisingly, they found that the partners of patients with HPV-positive oral cancer were no more likely to test positive for oral HPV infection than the rest of the general population.
MORE: The Mistake That Puts You At Risk for HPV
The researchers looked at 164 people with HPV-positive oral cancer and 93 of their spouses or partners. The patients were predominately male (as this type of cancer is more common in males) and their partners were predominantly female. All patients tested positive for HPV, and most of them tested positive for HPV DNA within their saliva at the time of the study. The researchers expected to see a higher incidence of HPV DNA in the saliva of their partners, as well. But surprisingly, most of the partners did not have any HPV DNA detectable in their saliva. "For some reason, they're not passing it along to their partners," says study co-author Krzysztof Misiukiewicz, M.D., assistant professor of otolaryngology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
But here's the thing: The researchers were only testing for HPV orally in both patients and their partners. They did not test the partners for genital HPV. That means it is possible these partners could have genital HPV that was passed along from the HPV-positive oral cancer patients via oral sex, which would not show up on their tests.
MORE: Another Scary Danger of HPV
Essentially, these results suggest oral-to-oral transmission of the virus through saliva (kissing, sharing drinks, etc.) is unlikely. However, it's still strongly suggested that women are regularly tested for genital HPV through a pap smear or HPV DNA testÃ¢â‚¬”especially if their partner has HPV or HPV-positive oral cancer.
While this research is definitely encouraging, there are a few other limitations to be aware of. Misiukiewicz stresses that this is the first study of its kind, so more research is needed to say with certainty that HPV is not contagious via oral-to-oral contact. Plus, this study mainly looked at male-to-female transmission, while approximately 25 percent of HPV-related oral cancer cases can occur in women. Still, it's great to see that more studies are looking at the spread of this virus and the steps we can take to eliminate it.
MORE: Health Risks of Oral Sex