Oral Sex and STIs

Can I get an STI from oral sex?

Yes, STIs can be transmitted during unprotected oral sex. Oral sex is a much lower risk activity than intercourse, but there's still a possibility for transmission. Not using a condom, dental dam, or other barrier puts both partners at risk. This means that performing and receiving oral sex puts you at risk. Some STIs are more likely to be transmitted during oral sex than others, including:

Herpes
Herpes is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact with a developing or existing sore. The virus can be transmitted from mouth to genitals if the person giving oral sex has or is developing a cold sore. It can also be transmitted from genitals to mouth if the person receiving oral sex has or is developing a genital sore.

Gonorrhea
Gonorrhea is transmitted when bacteria are present in body fluids. A person giving oral sex can get a gonorrhea infection of the throat if their partner has gonorrhea.

HIV/AIDS
For the person receiving oral sex, there's little chance of contracting HIV, although it's difficult to pinpoint when HIV has been transmitted because people rarely engage in only one type of sexual activity. In the case of fellatio (oral sex on a man), the HIV virus theoretically could gain entry from the mouth to the opening on the tip of the penis, or through an open cut or lesion on the penis. If you receive oral sex, however, you mainly expose yourself to saliva, which has negligible concentrations of HIV.

For the cunnilingus (oral sex on a woman) recipient, the chance of HIV transmission is also low, although the entire vagina is a mucous membrane through which, theoretically, the virus can be transmitted. A woman receiving cunnilingus is more at risk of getting herpes or gonorrhea from her partner than HIV.

The risk of HIV infection is greater for the partner who performs oral sex. A person performing oral sex on a woman should avoid it during her period, for menstrual blood can carry the HIV virus. Research presented at the 7th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in February of 2000 concluded that 8 of 122 cases in an HIV-transmission study were possibly attributable to performing oral sex on a man. Of these 8 infected people, some reported having had recent dental work or having cuts in their mouths, suggesting that HIV transmission by oral sex is associated with cuts, lesions, or irritation of the tissues in the mouth.

HPV
HPV is transmitted through skin to skin contact and can be transmitted from the vagina, penis or anus to the mouth or vice versa. The risk for HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers (cancers of the throat, tonsils and base of the tongue) is believed to be linked to the number of oral sex partners that someone has had.

Other STIs that can be transmitted through oral sex, although less commonly, include:

Hepatitis B
Syphilis
Chlamydia
Chancroid  

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What are the symptoms of an oral STI?

If you have an oral STI infection, you might experience a sore throat, tonsillitis, oral lesions, or cold sores. However, many oral STI cases are asymptomatic. If your partner(s) is diagnosed with an STI, you should see a medical provider to be tested and possibly treated.

How are they treated?

Treatments vary based on the STI diagnosed and the severity of the case. For example, gonorrhea can be treated with antibiotics but HIV cannot. Refer to the specific infection in the STI section to learn more about particular treatments.

How can I protect myself?

You and your partner need to make decisions based on an understanding of the risks involved and respect for each other's comfort level. Click here to read more about sexual decision-making. The safest choice is to use a latex barrier during every act of oral sex. Using a condom or a dental dam during oral sex will prevent STIs transmitted by skin-to-skin contact or by fluid transmission. Here are some suggestions to incorporate into your sexual activities:

  • Use the latex barrier from start to finish of oral sex.
  • Use a non-lubricated or a flavored condom on a penis or sex toy. Condoms with spermicide can numb the mouth and don't taste very good.
  • Don't use food products like whipped cream or chocolate sauce with the condom or dental dam because they may be oil-based, and oil-based lubricants break down latex.
  • For oral sex on a woman or for oral-anal stimulation, use a dental dam, use plastic food wrap, or cut a condom lengthwise to make your own dental dam.

You have increased risk of being exposed to STIs during oral sex in the following situations: you have gum disease, cuts or sores, you've had recent dental work that bruised any tissue in your mouth or you have vigorously brushed or flossed. During the 6 weeks after any type of oral or genital piercing, avoid any type of oral sexual contact. Wait 6 weeks even if you are in a mutually monogamous relationship, because until it is completely healed, the piercing is an open wound and provides easy access for bacteria and viruses.

Links you can use

For more general information about the risks associated with oral sex and STIs, you can go to:

CDC's National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention   

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