Just because you can’t get pregnant from oral sex doesn’t mean that oral sex is safer than penetrative sex.
It’s still best to use a barrier method of contraception (such as a condom or dental dam) because you can contract sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) through oral sex.
Read on to learn which STDs and STIs (sexually transmitted infections) can spread via oral sex and ways to treat and prevent these diseases.
The best news: You can still enjoy a pleasurable sex life while protecting yourself and your partner or partners.
How Common Is Oral Sex?
Oral sex is extremely common amongst sexually active adults and teenagers. One survey found that 41% of 15- to 19-year-olds have oral sex. And 85% of adults reported having oral sex at least once with their partner.
Quite a few STIs can spread through oral, vaginal, and anal sex.
If you and your partner have not been tested for STIs and you do not use a barrier method (such as a condom or dental dam), you may be at risk of contracting or spreading any of the following STIs.
Gonorrhea is one of the most common STIs that can be passed through oral sex. It can also be passed through vaginal and anal sex.
Gonorrhea is sneaky because it does not show clear and obvious symptoms. Unless you get tested regularly, you might not know that you have gonorrhea.
If you do have symptoms, you may have unusual discharge from your genitals, painful and burning urination, or genital itching.
Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection, so it’s typically cured with antibiotics. However, if left untreated, it can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which causes infertility in women.
Chlamydia is very similar to gonorrhea, in the sense that it is spread through oral, vaginal, or anal sex. It is also difficult to detect without a proper test because it rarely shows symptoms.
Unless you are tested, you could never know you’ve contracted chlamydia.
When symptoms do occur, they include painful urination, unusual or smelly discharge, and genital itching.
Because chlamydia is a bacterial infection, it can be treated and cured with antibiotics.
Syphilis is another STI that is passed through oral sex, as well as vaginal sex, anal sex, and skin contact with syphilis sores. There are four stages of syphilis:
- Primary: A sore or sores develop on the genitals, anus, or the mouth, wherever the disease made direct contact with the body. These sores don’t cause pain and are easy to overlook.
- Secondary: A rash forms somewhere on the body. Not all rashes itch, and some are not very noticeable.
- Latent: Symptoms completely disappear, yet the infection continues to live in the body.
- Tertiary: In this final stage, syphilis can cause organ failure and other serious medical problems.
Though syphilis is dangerous if left untreated, if caught in its early stages, it can be treated with antibiotics.
Herpes (HSV-1, HSV-2)
There are two strains of genital herpes, HSV-1 and HSV-2, and both can be passed through oral sex. However, HSV-2 is more easily spread through oral sex.
Many people don’t know they have genital herpes because it doesn’t always cause symptoms. During an outbreak, herpes causes blisters and sores around and near the genitals.
The virus is usually more contagious during an active outbreak, but it can also be spread to others without an active outbreak.
A barrier method, such as a condom or dental dam, is recommended to stop the spread of the herpes virus during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. However, if a blister isn’t covered by the condom, it can still easily spread the virus.
Herpes is not curable, but antiviral medications such as valacyclovir (Valtrex) or acyclovir (Zovirax) can help reduce the chance of outbreaks or make them go away faster.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) can spread through oral, vaginal, or anal sex.
Even though many strains of HPV are harmless, a few cause cancer, including cervical, oral, oropharyngeal, and anal cancer.
Three vaccines (Cervarix, Gardasil, and Gardasil-9) can help prevent cancer caused by HPV.
If you are under the age of 45 and you’ve never had the vaccine, your doctor may recommend it.
HPV is not spread through bodily fluids, but rather through skin-to-skin contact.
So, even though condoms or dental dams will help reduce the risk of infection, they will not eliminate it entirely.
Genital warts spread after physical contact with a genital wart, which can happen during oral, vaginal, or anal sex.
Warts look like flat or slightly elevated bumps in the genital area.
They can easily be confused with genital herpes, but they are not sores.
Warts can be flesh-, purple-, gray-, brown-, or pearl-colored; smooth or rough; small or large; and single bumps or groups of bumps. They are caused by HPV.
A barrier method can help stop the spread of genital warts.
However, you may still come into physical contact with one that is not protected by a barrier method, so you have to be careful and get tested.
Trichomoniasis is an STI spread through sexual contact, including penile-vaginal sex, vaginal-vaginal sex, or touching a partner’s genitals.
In rare cases, it can also spread via oral sex (and result in trichomoniasis of the throat) or anal sex.
Trichomoniasis has very few symptoms but it can resemble a urinary tract infection. You may have unusual discharge from the genitals, genital itching, and painful, burning urination.
Since it is a bacterial infection, trichomoniasis can be treated with antibiotics.
Hepatitis is spread through bodily fluids that contain the infection, so yes, it can be spread through oral sex, as well as vaginal and anal sex.
Hepatitis feels like a bout with the flu. However, if it is left untreated, it can cause liver failure.
Hepatitis can be prevented by using a barrier method while performing oral sex.
Can HIV Be Spread From Oral Sex?
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is transferred when infected bodily fluids—including blood, semen, vaginal secretions, and rectal fluids—reach the bloodstream of a non-infected person.
So, while rare, HIV can be spread when someone with a mouth wound performs oral sex on someone who is HIV-positive.
Most of the time, though, HIV is spread through vaginal and anal sex and by sharing needles and other drug-injection tools.
Over time, HIV can weaken the immune system. Though there isn’t a cure for HIV, antiretroviral therapy (ART) can treat the virus.
Since HIV may have very few, or no symptoms, it is important to be tested for HIV if you are sexually active. If positive, you will need lifelong treatment to prevent progression to AIDS.
It’s important to take the risk of oral sex seriously and do your best to prevent any possible STIs.
The best method of prevention is to avoid sexual activity, which means refraining from oral, vaginal, and anal sex.
If you are sexually active, there are still plenty of ways to prevent the spread of STIs and STDs.
Using a barrier method, like a condom or a dental dam, can help stop the spread of herpes, genital warts, syphilis, and pubic lice.
However, this method is not 100% effective if the barrier does not completely cover the active outbreak.
You can also stop the spread of STIs and STDs by pursuing monogamy or limiting your number of partners. Having multiple sexual partners puts you at a higher risk of coming into contact with more STIs and STDs.
Finally, getting tested on a regular basis is one of the main ways to stop the spread of STIs and STDs.
You should get tested every time you have a new sexual partner, or on an annual basis.
How to Get Tested
Doctor’s offices and health clinics offer screening for STIs. Many healthcare providers test for multiple STIs at once, making a visit very efficient.
These are the different types of tests for common STIs and STDs:
- Chlamydia and gonorrhea: swab around the genitals or urine sample
- Herpes: swab on the infected area
- HPV: visual diagnosis or pap smear
- Syphilis: blood test or swab of a syphilis sore
- HIV: mouth swab or blood test
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K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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Oral Sex, Oral Health and Orogenital Infections. (2010).
Oral Sex & You: What You Need To Know To Prevent Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). (2021).
Sexually Transmitted Infections Prevalence, Incidence, and Cost Estimates in the United States. (2021).
STD Risk and Oral Sex - CDC Fact Sheet. (2020).