The question could be key to catching and preventing a deadly form of cancer You’re well-versed at asking the usual questions at your biannual dental checkup: do you have any toothaches, or pain when you chew? Do you floss every day?
Now, there may be another line of questions coming: those about your sex life. Questions about oral sex may be key to prevention of oropharyngeal cancers of the throat, tonsils and back of the tongue, which can be caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) spread through oral sex. But lots of dentists are falling short on the practice, a new study in the Journal of the American Dental Association suggests.
That’s what researchers discovered after holding four focus groups with dentists at a regional dental conference. While most dentists screened for oropharyngeal cancers, many fell short on actually talking to their patients about the cancer.
In fact, most only talk about the cancer when they see a patient who already has symptoms of it, like a painless lump in the neck or a sore throat that doesn’t go away, according to the statement. That means lots of patients are missing out on important conversations about risk factors and prevention methods.
Barriers against asking these questions include a lack of privacy in most dental offices, plus a fear of embarrassing the patient when bringing up a pretty sensitive topic.
“Given the alarming increase of HPV-attributable oropharyngeal cancers, dentists and dental hygienists may be key agents for promoting HPV prevention,” study author Ellen Daly, Ph.D., said in the statement. “However, there’s a serious need for better training and education in the dental community.”
And that’s especially true since HPV-fueled throat cancer is a growing problem: Before 1990, only 21% of oropharyngeal cancers included the presence of HPV. After 2000, that number grew to nearly two out of every three samples, according to a meta-analysis from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.
The researchers believe the study highlights the importance of using the dental visit as a way to educate patients about their own risk factors, what symptoms they should watch for, and what they can do to protect themselves. They hope the results encourage dentists to enhance their own communication efforts with their patients about the disease, which may play a role in reducing their risk.
So don’t be surprised if your next visit includes some questions about your oral sex life. If your dentist doesn’t bring it up, know the symptoms—mentioned above—yourself. And if you experience them, see your dentist or your doctor, stat.
As for avoiding it in the first place? The HPV vaccine, which can prevent against cancer-causing strains, is usually given during adolescence, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends it through age 26 for men if they meet certain criteria. Using condoms and dental dams correctly can also lower your risk.