Blogging about Snogging

Aug 23, 2023

Rates of head and neck cancer are dramatically on the rise because of infection with human papilloma virus (HPV) from open-mouthed kissing or snogging (otherwise known as deep or French kissing) and oral sex. The greater the number of sexual partners, the greater the risk of head and neck cancer.

HPV-16 is the predominant HPV type that accounts for 90% of head and neck cancer. HPV-16 is also responsible for most HPV-associated anal and cervical cancers.

While regular pap smears detect cervical cancer, no equivalent screening methods are available for head and neck cancers, although the three-round HPV vaccine, Gardasil 9, administered to males and females between the ages 9-45 is highly recommended.

Other risk factors for head and neck cancer include smoking (tobacco or marijuana), alcohol consumption, and chewing of tobacco, snuff, and areca nuts, a stimulant found in Southern Asia. HPV-infected cells accumulate DNA damage, which predispose them to malignant transformation, or cancer formation. However, an intact immune system clears most HPV infections with 6-18 months. Only 10% of infected individuals develop HPV-related tumors. Immunocompromised individuals such as organ transplant recipients that receive immunosuppressive medications and those infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) are much more likely to develop HPV-related diseases. It appears to take at least a decade for a persistent HPV infection to turn malignant or cancerous. According to recent studies, HPV-positive smokers and/or drinkers are also at greater risk for the development of head and neck cancer.[1]

So, given the current epidemic of HPV-driven head and neck cancers, inquiring mouths want to know: is it safe to snog? According to a peer reviewed scientific article entitled, “To kiss or not to kiss in the era of the human papillomavirus-associated head and neck cancer “epidemic”?”[2], “physicians should not advise patients to avoid open-mouth kissing beyond usual safe sex practices… considering the relative rarity of high-risk oral HPV infection, and the apparent infrequency with which infections transform to malignancy”. However, the knowledge that exchange of saliva from deep kissing transmits HPV may incentivize more caution.

[1] Yang et al. Joint effect of human papillomavirus exposure, smoking and alcohol on risk of oral squamous cell carcinoma. BMC Cancer. 2023 May 19;23(1):457.

[2] Rettig et al. To kiss or not to kiss in the era of the human papillomavirus-associated head and neck cancer “epidemic”? Laryngoscope. 2019 Jan;129(1):4-5.