Oral Sex and STIs: What You Need to Know

“Be safe!” You hear these two little words from your mom (too often), your best friend (because she cares), and those who have ever given you sex advice (out of genuine concern). When it comes to oral sex, though, sound advice is kind of murky. Many girls think oral sex is safe sex because they can’t get pregnant. What you may not know is that you can contract sexually transmitted infections (STIs) from oral sex. Read on to find out more about this increasingly relevant issue and how you can be safe if you choose to engage.

Isn’t oral sex safe sex?

“A big misconception is that oral sex is safe sex. Oral sex is safer sex, but it’s not safe sex,” says Dr. Catherine Satterwhite, assistant professor at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. “It is less risky than vaginal sex, but you can still contract sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in your throat from performing oral sex.”

What STIs can I contract from performing oral sex and how will I know?

The disconcerting news: you can catch pretty much any STI from giving oral sex, including Chlamydia, gonorrhea, HPV, and herpes. The good news: “All STIs can clear up on their own, without ever having any symptoms appear. In fact, most STIs will not have any symptoms and will resolve on their own, without any treatment,” says Satterwhite. “HPV is likely to clear in 1-2 years. In the case of bacterial STIs, like chlamydia and gonorrhea, infections may clear in as few as a couple of weeks to about a year or longer.”

Although STIs can clear up on their own, they can also cause disease. “In some cases, STIs may lead to symptoms. If you have any concerning symptoms, such as unusual discharge, pain during intercourse, or pain during urination, go talk with your doctor. In rare cases, STIs can lead to adverse outcomes, like warts in the throat from oral HPV or pelvic inflammatory disease after cervical Chlamydia or gonorrhea.”

There is one STI that will not clear up on its own, although you may never know you have it—herpes. Herpes simplex virus (HSV) will never go away once contracted. “You may never get any symptoms (sores), get sores only once, or get sores more than once. In all of these cases, you would still actually be infected with HSV and could pass the infection to someone else,” warns Satterwhite.

If I have a STI, will I infect my partner when giving oral sex? If my partner has a STI, will he infect me when giving oral sex?

“Oral STIs can be transmitted through fluid exchange including pre-ejaculate, ejaculate, and vaginal fluids—mucus and discharge,” says Satterwhite. Because there is potential for fluid exchange during oral sex, you CAN transmit STIs between the mouth and genitals, or vice versa.

“For instance, HPV and herpes may be shed from skin cells, whether a sore is present or not. So, for example: oral herpes could be transmitted to the penis or female genitals, or genital herpes could be transmitted to the mouth,” Satterwhite explains.

“While the individual risks of oral sex are of concern, the greater concern may actually be passing the infection on to a sex partner,” says Satterwhite. “Genital infections are associated with greater risks than oral infections.” Keep reading to learn how to protect yourself.

How can I protect against getting an STI from oral sex?

You have a couple options when it comes to preventing STIs via oral sex. “The surest way to avoid STIs is abstinence – this means not having anal, vaginal, or oral sex,” says Rachel Powell, a spokesperson for the Center for Disease Control (CDC). If you don’t engage in oral sex, there is automatically no risk of catching an STI.

You can also opt to use condoms (if you’re performing oral sex on a guy) or dental dams (if your guy is performing oral sex on you). For information on discussing condoms with your partner, go here. You can also check out these videos from Planned Parenthood—this video teaches you how to properly put on a condom, and this video fills you in on how to use a dental dam.

Oral sex is riskiest when you are exposed to fluid. If you aren’t using protection, don’t let your partner ejaculate into your mouth.

Oral sex becomes much safer if you are in a “mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner,” says Powell. To add to the security, make sure you and your partner are screened every year.

Where can I go to get tested?

Talk to your primary care doctor or your gynecologist. “A great time to get an STI check—in both your throat and around your genitals—is during your annual physical exam or, if you’re on birth control, when you get your prescription refilled,” suggests Satterwhite. “Either way, you should get tested for STIs once a year, whether you’re in a monogamous relationship or not.” Some other places to check out are your campus health center, the local Planned Parenthood or a public STD clinic. You can check out the CDC's National HIV and STD Testing Resources to find free and low-cost STD testing locations, or text your zip code to 498669 to find a testing site in your area.

In all of the above cases, your insurance should cover the cost of the STI test. You may have a co-pay associated with your exam; check with your insurance provider or doctor.

When it comes to getting your throat checked out for STIs, your doctor will take a culture test, which means she will swab your throat to test for any bacteria (kind of like a strep throat test, where they swab your throat with a huge Q-tip). You should have results within a week.

When you are tested for STIs around your genitals, doctors will most likely take a blood or urine sample. “Doctors can also take a sample by swabbing your throat to detect Chlamydia and gonorrhea,” explains Powell.

 

At the end of the day, your health is what is most important. Get screened once a year for STIs, and take preventative measures when engaging in oral sex. You are in control of your body, so take care of it!

Tagged: