Oral sex does carry risks
Sexually transmitted infections and diseases aren’t just contracted through vaginal or anal sex — any skin-to-skin contact with the genitals is enough to pass an STD or STI on to your partner. This means that oral sex using the mouth, lips, or tongue poses the same risks as other sexual activities.
The only way to prevent transmission and reduce your risk of infection is to use a genital or dental condom for every sexual encounter.
Keep reading to learn which STDs and STIs can be spread through oral sex, the symptoms to look out for, and how to get tested.
Chlamydia is caused by the bacteria chlamydia trachomatis. It’s the most common bacterial STI in the United States among all age groups. In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) received more than 1.5 million reports of chlamydial infection.
Chlamydia can be passed through oral sex, but the infection is more likely to be transmitted through anal or vaginal sex. Chlamydia affects the throat, genitals, urinary tract, and rectum.
Most chlamydia infections of the throat don’t carry any symptoms. When symptoms do appear, they can include a sore throat. Chlamydia isn’t a lifelong infection, and it can be cured with the right antibiotics.
Gonorrhea, also known as “the clap,” is a common STI caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae. The CDC estimates there are about 820,000 new infections of gonorrhea each year, with 570,000 affecting people ages 15 to 24.
Gonorrhea can be passed through oral sex, but the infection is more likely to be transmitted through anal or vaginal sex. Gonorrhea affects the throat, genitals, urinary tract, and rectum.
Like chlamydia, gonorrhea of the throat often doesn’t show any symptoms. When symptoms do show, it’s usually a week after exposure and can include a sore throat.
Gonorrhea can be cured with the right antibiotics. However, there has been an increase in reports of drug-resistant gonorrhea in the United States and around the world. The CDC recommends retesting if your symptoms don’t go away after you’ve completed the full course of antibiotics.
Syphilis is a serious infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It isn’t as common as other STIs and STDs. According to the CDC, there were more than 74,000 reported new syphilis diagnoses in 2015. Syphilis affects the mouth, lips, throat, genitals, anus, and rectum.
Syphilis symptoms happen in stages. For oral syphilis, the first stage includes sores in or around the mouth and throat. In the second stage, you may experience a skin rash, swollen lymph nodes, and fever. The latent stage of the infection, which can last for years, shows no signs or symptoms. The third stage of the infection can affect your brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints.
If left untreated, the bacterium will remain in the body and can cause serious health problems such as organ damage and significant neurological outcomes. It can also spread to a fetus during pregnancy and cause stillbirth or other serious complications for the infant.
Syphilis can be cured with the right antibiotics, and symptoms may disappear with or without treatment.
HSV-2 is transmitted primarily through sexual intercourse, causing genital or anal herpes. According to the WHO, HSV-2 affects an estimated 417 million people younger than 50 around the world.
HSV-2 can spread through oral sex and cause herpes esophagitis in some people, but this is extremely rare. Symptoms of herpes esophagitis include:
- open sores in the mouth
- difficulty swallowing
- joint pain
- malaise (general unwell feeling)
This is a lifelong infection that can spread even when you don’t have symptoms. Treatment can shorten and reduce or prevent herpes outbreaks.
HPV is the most common viral STI in the United States. The CDC estimates that about 79 million Americans are infected with HPV currently, and that at least 14 million people will become newly infected each year.
The virus can spread through oral sex as often as it does vaginal or anal sex. HPV affects the mouth, throat, genitals, cervix, anus, and rectum.
In some cases, HPV infection won’t show any symptoms.
Other types of HPV infection can cause laryngeal or respiratory papillomatosis, which affects the mouth and throat. Symptoms include:
- warts in the throat
- vocal changes
- difficulty speaking
- shortness of breath
Several other HPV types that infect the mouth and throat don’t cause warts, but may cause head or neck cancer.
HPV doesn’t have a cure, but it sometimes disappears within two years of infection. Any warts of the mouth and throat can be removed through surgery, but they may recur even with treatment.
In 2006, the FDA approved a vaccine for children and young adults aged 11 to 26 years to prevent infection from the most common high-risk HPV strains. These are the strains associated with cervical, anal, and head and neck cancers.
The CDC estimates that 1.1 million people in the United States are living with HIV, although rates are on the decline. HIV is most commonly spread through vaginal and anal sex. According to the CDC, your risk of spreading or becoming infected with HIV through oral sex is extremely low.
HIV is a lifelong disease, and many infected people don’t see any symptoms for years. People living with HIV may initially have flu-like symptoms.
There is no cure for the viral infection. However, people with HIV can live longer, healthier lives by taking antiviral medications and staying in treatment.
How to get tested
For STI screenings, the CDC advises yearly testing (at least) for syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea for all sexually active women younger than 25 years and for all sexually active men who have sex with men.
People with new or multiple sex partners, as well as pregnant women, should also have annual STI screenings. The CDC also recommends that all youth and adults ages 13 to 64 years get tested for HIV at least once in their lifetime.
You can visit your doctor or a health clinic to get screened for an STI or HIV. Many clinics offer free or low-cost testing options. What you can expect from a test will differ among each infection and disease.
The types of tests include:
- chlamydia and gonorrhea: swab of your genital area or urine sample
- HIV: swab from inside your mouth or blood test
- herpes (without symptoms): blood test
- herpes (with symptoms): swab of the affected area with a follow-up blood test to double check results
- syphilis: blood test or sample taken from a sore
- HPV (warts of the mouth or throat): Visual diagnosis based on symptoms or pap test
The bottom line
Although STDs and STIs are more commonly spread through sexual intercourse, it’s still possible to become infected during oral sex. Wearing a condom — correctly and every time — is the only way to reduce your risk and prevent transmission. You should get tested regularly, even if you’re in a long-term relationship. The sooner you know your status, the earlier you can treat any possible infection.