Jun 16, 2020
What’s your “magic number”? One? Five? Twenty or more?
In other words, how many sex partners have you had in your life?
It’s a personal question, and there is no right or wrong answer. But it’s one you should consider when thinking about your own health.
Research suggests that the more lifetime sex partners you have, the higher your risk for illness. And a new study from England says it’s possible that a high magic number could put you at higher risk for cancer and other medical conditions.
What did the study say?
In the spring of 2020, the journal BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health published a study involving 2,537 men and 3,185 women in England. All of the participants were age 50 or over, so they had had a substantial amount of time for sexual relationships.
The researchers found that people who had had 10 or more lifetime partners were more likely to have developed cancer compared to people who had had one partner or no partners. These results applied to both men and women.
However, there was another concern for women. In the study, those who had 10 or more lifetime partners were also at higher risk of having a “limiting long-standing illness.”
Why are these findings important?
What does the number of sex partners have to do with your health?
Think of it this way. Having sex with a new partner is like sleeping with all their previous partners, too. This history might include sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which can have serious health consequences. And since STIs don’t always have symptoms, it’s easy to transmit them to others without knowing it.
Consider these examples from the study:
- Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV – human papillomavirus – one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. There are many strains of HPV. Most of them are harmless, and your immune system clears any infection without your even knowing you have it.
- But HPV is also linked other forms of cancer, including cancers of the head and neck, vagina, vulva, penis, and anus. It can cause genital warts as well.
- Studies suggest that gonorrhea raises the risk of prostate cancer in black men.
- Hepatitis B, which can be present in saliva, semen, and vaginal fluids, has been associated with liver cancer risk. Hepatitis C, which may also be sexually transmitted, shares similar risk.
- People with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, may also be more likely to develop cancer.
What should you do?
While the above news might make you wonder if sex is hazardous to your health, rest assured that it can actually good for you!
The key is to be smart about it:
- Limit your number of sexual partners. Be selective about who you sleep with.
- Avoid risky situations. Using drugs and alcohol can impair your sexual judgment and lead to encounters you might regret. You might be more easily persuaded to go to bed with someone you don’t know very well or engage in activities without protection.
- Know your partner’s history. Before having sex with anyone, sit down and have a talk about the sexual past. If you or your partner has had a history of STIs or risky behaviors, that information should be disclosed. The conversation might be awkward, but it’s important to have. These tips can help.
- Get tested. Talk to your doctor about STI testing. If you or your partner tests positive for an STI, don’t have sex until treatment is over and the doctor says it’s safe.
- Use condoms. Male and female condoms do more than lower your risk for unplanned pregnancy. They can reduce your STI risk, too! Always inspect condoms for damage before using them, and make sure you and your partner use them during every sex act. That means if you have vaginal sex and oral sex in the same night, you need fresh condoms for each encounter. Learn more.
- Use dental dams. Similar to condoms, dental dams can protect you and your partner during oral sex. A new dental dam should be used for every sex act.
- Get vaccinated against HPV. Vaccines can protect you from certain strains of HPV that are known to cause cancer and genital warts. The HPV vaccine is now available for people up to age 45. Ask your doctor for more details.
BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health
Grabovac, Igor, et al.
“The relationship between chronic diseases and number of sexual partners: an exploratory analysis”
(Full-text. April 2020)
Medscape News UK
“Cancer Risk ‘Increases With Increasing Number of Sex Partners’”
(February 14, 2020)
“Hepatitis and Sex: Frequently Asked Questions”
(Reviewed: July 22, 2018)