Oral sex may not pose pregnancy risks, but it’s far from “safe” sex. You can still pass sexually transmitted infections (STIs) between you and your partner.

If you've never considered this before, you aren't alone! Although condoms and dental dams offer protection against oral STIs, they're often overlooked.

Here’s what you should know about oral STIs, how to talk to your partner about protection, how to make this a part of foreplay, and more.

Although it’s clear that oral sex puts both the giver and receiver at risk for contracting an STI, it’s difficult to assess the overall risk of transmission.

Researchers note that this is partly because people who have oral sex often have vaginal or anal sex, too. This makes it harder to determine the point of transmission.

To date, research on contracting STIs other than HIV during oral sex is limited. Even less research is available regarding STI transmission after performing vaginal or anal oral sex.

So what do we know?

The following STIs are commonly passed through oral sex:

The following infections occur less frequently as a result of oral sex:

The following infections can be transmitted through oral sex, but the overall likelihood is unclear:

Other bacterial infections — such as those caused by Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Shigella — and intestinal parasites can also be spread through anal oral sex.

Condoms and dental dams are like many other forms of protection: They’re effective, but they aren’t 100 percent.

User error, including incorrect application, can reduce their efficacy.

Unexpected rips in the material — no matter how small — can also spread bacteria and viruses between you and your partner.

Likewise, STIs can be spread through contact with skin that isn’t covered by the condom or dental dam.

For example, genital herpes and syphilis can be spread through any skin-to-skin contact in the genital region, including the pubic mound and the labia.

It can be difficult to discuss your boundaries and expectations after clothes start coming off. If you can, have a conversation with your partner before things get hot and heavy.

These conversation starters may help:

  • “I was reading an article about using a condom during oral sex, and I wanted to discuss that with you.”
  • “We’ve been having a lot of fun, and I’m excited to try new things with you. I’m wondering if we can check in about how and when we should use protection.”
  • “I like to talk about sex, protection, and consent before anything happens. Can we talk about that now?”
  • “Just so things aren’t confusing the next time we make out or fool around, I wondered if we could talk about oral sex and protection.”

Having an open and honest conversation can facilitate greater intimacy and understanding in your sexual relationships.

If you and your partner can clear the air and get on the same page before anything happens — or worse, before misunderstandings occur — you may find it easier to relax and enjoy the moment.

Giving or receiving oral sex while using a barrier method will be a little different. That’s a given. However, it doesn’t have to be unenjoyable or uncomfortable.

Taste

Some people report that condoms or dental dams have an unpleasant taste. You may be able to minimize this by opting for a material other than latex or polyurethane.

Lubricant and other additives can also affect the taste. Whether this is a good thing depends on the lube in question.

Pre-lubricated condoms, for example, often have an unpleasant taste. Start with something unlubricated and go from there.

If the taste is still troubling, consider adding an edible, flavored lube to the mix. Just make sure the lube is compatible with barrier material and safe for ingestion.

Sensation

Despite what you may have heard, you’ll still be able to feel pressure, warmth, and movement.

In fact, one person says that oral sex with a condom feels “about 80 percent there.” They went on to say that the overall sensation is on par with what they experience during vaginal intercourse.

For some, slightly muted sensation may be a bonus. If you typically find oral sex too stimulating, using a barrier method may help prolong your endurance.

Almost any condom you would use for penetrative sex can be used for protection during oral sex.

Keep these pointers in mind:

  • Size matters. Ill-fitting condoms may slip, tear, or otherwise allow fluid to leak out and expose skin.
  • Lubricant is optional. Although pre-lubricated condoms may have an unpleasant taste, added lubricant may help mask the taste of the material.
  • Spermicide is risky. You should never use a condom that has added nonoxynol-9 spermicide. N-9 can numb your mouth, which, may result in unexpected injury.

You can use an outside condom to cover the penis during oral sex. Inside condoms and dental dams can be used to protect the vagina and anus.

If you don’t have a dental dam handy, you can create your own using an inside or outside condom.

Simply snip the tip and the rolled end of the condom off, then slice down the length of the condom. Unroll the material and place it on the vagina or anus before performing oral sex.

In a real pinch, you can use plastic wrap. Just keep in mind that’s not what it’s intended for, and no studies have looked at how effective it is at preventing STI transmission.

There is no one-size-fits all approach to getting a barrier method into place before oral sex.

You can be very direct about it, stopping when things are ready to take a turn and just placing the condom or dam in place. You can also be more playful and make opening and applying the protection more fun. How you do it is up to you.

These tips might help:

  • Minimize effort. Open the condom or dental dam package before foreplay. This way you don’t have to stop the action to get to it. You can reach right over and retrieve it.
  • Reward the rolling. Your mouth shouldn’t come into contact with any fluids before a barrier method is in place, so use your hands to place the condom or dam, and then quickly follow behind with your tongue.

Here are a few more pointers to keep top of mind:

Do: Use a new condom if you want to move on to penetration.

Condoms are a one-use-only protection method. If you’re ready to move to vaginal or anal penetration, remove the condom and apply a new one.

Don’t: Use your teeth to apply the condom.

You might not see it, but your teeth can puncture tiny holes in the condom or dam. That can leave you open to contact with fluids that can carry STIs.

Do: Consider flavored lube to help mask the unpleasant taste or smell.

Flavored lubricants may help cover the barrier’s “flavor” and make performing oral sex more pleasant. Just make sure the lube is appropriate for oral use and works with the barrier material.

Water- and silicone-based lubes are generally compatible with condom materials.

Don’t: Use foods as lube.

The oils in foods can break down latex and polyurethane, which may make the condom or dam rip or tear during oral sex. Stick with approved products, not chocolate sauces.

Do: Use before making any contact with fluids.

You may think avoiding ejaculation will help you avoid an STI, but you can transmit these bacteria and viruses long before climax occurs. Put the condom or dam in place as soon as you’re planning to touch the genitals or anal area.

Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. The most important factor in your sex life is that you feel safe, secure, and comfortable.

If you don’t feel safe, you won’t be able to relax and enjoy the moment, so there is no harm in stopping the action or preventing it from even starting until you have answers to your questions and a plan for feeling protected during sex.