• November 21, 2013
  • Dr. Catherine-Anne Walsh

Hello again! As promised, we are going to chat about more things that can grow in your mouth…..and I don’t just mean plaque! Now we all know that things like cigarettes and smokeless tobacco cause cancer but did you know that when mixed with heavy alcohol use the rate of oral cancers increases 15 times?1 (heavy alcohol use is defined as more than 4 standard drinks in one occasion)1 Alcohol and tobacco act together to promote cell changes in the mucosa (lining) of the mouth and oropharnyx (throat). The good news is that once you cease using tobacco and alcohol your risks of developing oral cancer become similar to those of a non-smoker/drinker again. It doesn’t happen overnight, but through time the risk does depreciate.

    Healthcare professionals have been seeing an increase in oral cancers in people who are not smokers or drinkers or combinations of the two. So we have been asking ourselves, “ what is going on?!” There are a few things that increase oral cancer risks in people who are not alcohol and tobacco users and this includes HPV infection. Interestingly, a certain Hollywood actor who has recently separated from his wife both announced and then retracted statements that his throat cancer was caused by oral sex. So, what is the basis of this claim?

    Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is associated with cervical cancer in women and oral cancers in both men and women.1  HPV is a sexually transmitted infection and increases the risk of oral cancer regardless of a persons’ alcohol or tobacco use.2 So this means that even if you don’t smoke or have heavy alcohol usage, you can still develop oral cancer. Interestingly, these particular oral cancers can develop up to 10 years after the initial infection was acquired.2 I don’t want to scare you, but it makes for an excellent argument that even if you have healthy lifestyle choices, you still can benefit from regular dental checkups that include oral cancer screenings. In the US, more than half of oral cancers are related to HPV (and this is regardless of sexual orientation) but the frequency does increase with the number of lifetime sexual partners that a person has.3 In the case of the Hollywood actor, his throat cancer may have been alcohol and tobacco consumption related or related to HPV but genetic testing of his cancer cells would have been required to determine a causative factor.

    There is currently an HPV vaccine available, but it does not protect you if you have already contracted a strain of HPV.3 Contact your Family Doctor for more information about the HPV vaccine. Contact the Dentist at 70 Pitt Street if there are any changes in your mouth that last for more than 2 weeks. For further reading, see below:

1)      http://www.oralcancerfacts.com.au/causes-of-oral-cancer.html

2)      http://www.oralcancerfoundation.org/facts/pdf/gillison_nejom_2007.pdf

3)      http://www.dentalhealthweek.com.au/Adults/Lifestyle-Risks/oral-sex.html

Photo of Michael Douglas taken from: http://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/health-wellness/2013/06/09/michael-douglas-blames-throat-cancer-oral-sex-what-are-risks/Akb38cr5CCvj2HUKXJ5SCP/story.html on Nov 21, 2013.

Dr. Catherine-Anne Walsh
About The Author

Dr. Catherine-Anne Walsh

Catherine-Anne is a New Zealand-qualified dentist. She holds a Masters Degree in Public Health from Sydney University and she has a broad range of experiences from working in both the public and private sector.


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