Being Well

How Is Sexual Health Related to Cancer? A Look at HHV-8

HHV-8 can cause cancer, but it generally doesn't cause problems in people with healthy immune systems.

How is sexual health related to cancer? You may already know that many sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can lead to certain cancers. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common STIs that can lead to cervical cancer and many other types. But numerous STIs can also lead to cancer. One you probably haven’t heard of is human herpes virus 8 (HHV-8).

Human Herpes Virus 8: The Basics

HHV-8 is also called Kaposi sarcoma-associated herpes virus (KSHV) because it is the underlying cause of Kaposi sarcoma. Researchers discovered HHV-8 in the 1990s when testing Kaposi sarcoma tumors, which became more common during the AIDS epidemic around that same time period. Kaposi sarcoma is cancer of the cells that line blood vessels and lymph vessels. KSHV causes these cells to divide too quickly and live longer than they are supposed to, which eventually changes them into cancer cells.

About 10 percent of people in the United States have HHV-8, according to the American Cancer Society. HHV-8 is commonly spread through sex, but it can also be spread through blood or saliva. The virus can also be passed from mother to child, which is more common in developing nations where the rates of HHV-8 infection are much higher.

HHV-8 and Sexual Health Related to Cancer

HHV-8 can lead to the development of Kaposi sarcoma, a rare, slow-growing form of cancer. The good news is that the majority of people with HHV-8 never develop cancer because of it, according to Medical News Today. Those with compromised immune systems and HHV-8 are most at risk of developing Kaposi sarcoma, which is why it is commonly seen in people with HIV or people taking immunosuppressant medications.

Kaposi sarcoma causes dark red, purple or brown lesions right under the skin. The lesions can also occur inside the mouth or throat, or internally, like in the gastrointestinal system. Although unsightly, if these lesions do not cause pain, they don’t usually need immediate treatment. However, if treatment is necessary, they are treated similar to other tumors, with surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

It’s always important to protect yourself when sexually active. Like all herpes viruses, HHV-8 is lifelong. However, adults with healthy immune systems will likely never experience symptoms and may not know they have the virus. If you’re concerned about sexual health related to cancer risk, talk to your doctor or gynecologist about ways to stay protected.

If you're concerned about your sexual health and risk of developing cancer, talk to your doctor or gynecologist.

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Patricia Chaney
Patricia Chaney