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Many people don’t realize it, but you can contract a sexually transmitted infection (STI) without having vaginal or anal sex. Any skin-to-skin contact with the genitals is enough to contract an STI — or pass one to your partner.

In other words, oral sex using the mouth, lips, or tongue can pose similar risks as other sexual activities. But as with other sexual activities, you can lower the risk of transmission by using a condom or other barrier method for every sexual encounter.

Read on to learn which STIs can be contracted or transmitted through oral sex, symptoms to pay attention to, and how to get tested.

STI or STD?

You might also come across the term sexually transmitted disease (STD), which refers to an STI that has symptoms.

STIs can lead to STDs, but these terms don’t mean the exact same thing.

The difference between the two is that an STD involves symptoms, while an STI may not.

Oral sex describes any sexual act where the mouth, lips, or tongue makes contact with the genital areas or anus. This includes:

STIs are infections transmitted through sexual contact.

It’s possible to have an STI without having any symptoms. So, it’s always wise to take precautions and use a condom or other barrier method every time you have sex — even if you don’t have any symptoms.

How can you get STIs from oral sex?

STIs pass through sexual fluids and skin-to-skin contact. When infected genital tissues make contact with the tissues in your mouth and throat, an STI can pass from the genitals to your mouth.

The reverse is also true: If you have an STI in your throat or mouth, it can pass to your partner’s genitals if you perform oral sex.

Keep in mind, too, that STIs are not just transmitted through fluids. Many people (falsely) believe that avoiding contact with fluids such as semen prevents STI transmission. But in reality, any sexual contact carries a risk.

What’s more, you can have an STI in more than one place at the same time, such as an STI that affects your genitals as well as your throat.

Certain STIs, such as gonorrhea, can also spread in your body. So, in some cases, an STI that mainly affects your genitals could potentially be transmitted if you make oral contact with your partner’s genitals.

Chlamydia is caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis. In the United States, chlamydia is more frequently reported than any other bacterial STI.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while chlamydia can be transmitted through oral sex, it’s more likely to be transmitted through anal or vaginal sex.

Chlamydia can affect the:

  • throat
  • genitals
  • urinary tract
  • rectum

Most chlamydia affecting the throat causes no symptoms. When symptoms do appear, they can include a sore throat. Chlamydia isn’t a lifelong condition, and it can be cured with the right antibiotics.

Gonorrhea is a common STI caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae. The CDC estimates that there are about 1.14 million new cases of gonorrhea each year, with about half affecting people ages 15 to 24.

Both gonorrhea and chlamydia can technically be passed through oral sex. But according to the CDC, the exact risks are difficult to determine. People who have oral sex may also have vaginal or anal sex, which can make it difficult to determine which activity caused the infection.

Gonorrhea can affect the:

  • throat
  • genitals
  • urinary tract
  • rectum

Like chlamydia, gonorrhea of the throat often doesn’t involve any symptoms. Symptoms that do appear tend to show up about 1 week after exposure and can include a sore throat.

Gonorrhea can be cured with the right antibiotics. However, reports of drug-resistant gonorrhea, in the United States and around the world, have increased.

The CDC recommends retesting if your symptoms do not go away after you’ve completed the full course of antibiotics.

It’s also important for any partners to get tested and treated for any STIs if there’s any chance they were exposed.

Syphilis is an STI caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. It is not as common as other STIs.

According to the CDC, there were 133,945 reported new syphilis diagnoses in 2020.

Syphilis can affect the:

  • mouth and lips
  • genitals
  • anus
  • rectum

Syphilis can be cured with the right antibiotics.

Without treatment, the condition will remain in your body, where it can eventually affect your blood vessels and nervous system. Syphilis can cause serious health complications, including organ damage and significant neurological outcomes.

Syphilis symptoms happen in stages:

  • Primary syphilis. The first stage is characterized by a painless sore, called a chancre, that appears on your genitals, on your rectum, or in your mouth. The sore may go unnoticed and will disappear on its own, even without treatment.
  • Secondary syphilis. During the second stage, you may have a skin rash, swollen lymph nodes, or fever.
  • Latent syphilis. This stage of the condition can last for years and involves no apparent signs or symptoms.
  • Tertiary syphilis. The third stage of the condition can affect your brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints. It can also pass to a fetus during pregnancy and cause stillbirth or other serious complications for the infant.

The herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) is one of two types of this common viral STI.

HSV-1 is mainly transmitted through oral-to-oral or oral-to-genital contact. It can cause both oral, genital, and anal herpes. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), HSV-1 affects an estimated 3.7 billion people under 50 years old around the world.

HSV-1 can affect the:

  • lips
  • mouth
  • throat
  • genitals
  • rectum
  • anus

Symptoms of oral herpes include blisters or sores, also called cold sores. They can appear on the mouth, lips, and throat.

HSV-1 can be transmitted or contracted even when no symptoms are present. HSV-1 is a lifelong condition. It can’t be cured, but treatment with antiviral medication can lead to fewer outbreaks and help ease your symptoms.

The herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) is transmitted mainly through vaginal or anal sexual intercourse. It can cause oral, genital, or anal herpes. According to the WHO, HSV-2 affects an estimated 491 million people ages 15 to 49 around the world.

Like HSV-1, HSV-2 can be transmitted through oral sex.

The symptoms of oral HSV-2 are much the same as oral HSV-1. You may notice blisters or sores on your mouth, lips, or tongue, though it’s possible to have the virus and never experience symptoms.

HSV-2 can be contracted or transmitted even when no symptoms are present. While there’s no cure for HSV-2, treatment can help ease your symptoms and lead to fewer herpes outbreaks.

Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can, in some rare cases, lead to serious illnesses such as herpes esophagitis. With this condition, you might have a fever and chills, notice difficulty swallowing or pain with swallowing, and have joint pain or a general unwell feeling.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common STI in the United States. According to 2017 estimates from the CDC, about 79 million people in the United States currently live with HPV.

HPV can be transmitted or contracted through oral, vaginal, and anal sex. HPV affects the:

  • mouth
  • throat
  • genitals
  • cervix
  • anus
  • rectum

In some cases, HPV involves no symptoms.

Certain types of HPV can cause laryngeal or respiratory papillomatosis, which affects the mouth and throat. Symptoms include:

  • warts in the throat
  • voice changes
  • difficulty speaking
  • shortness of breath

Several other types of HPV affect the mouth and throat but do not cause warts. They may cause head or neck cancer, though.

While HPV has no cure, the majority of HPV transmissions are cleared by the body on its own, without causing further complications. Surgery and other treatments can remove warts of the mouth and throat, but these may return even with treatment.

In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a vaccine for children and young adults ages 11 to 26 to prevent transmission of the most common high risk HPV strains. These are the strains associated with cervical, anal, head, and neck cancers. The vaccine also protects against common strains that cause genital warts.

In 2018, the FDA expanded its approval to adults up to 45 years old.

The CDC estimates that 1.19 million people in the United States were living with HIV in 2019.

HIV is most commonly transmitted through vaginal and anal sex. According to the CDC, the risk of transmitting or acquiring HIV through oral sex is extremely low.

If you contract HIV, you may not have any symptoms for years. The virus can initially cause flu-like symptoms, though.

HIV can’t be cured. That said, HIV treatment has evolved significantly over the years. You can now effectively manage the condition with antiretroviral medications.

Learn how pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) can lower your chances of developing HIV.

You do have options for lowering your risk of transmitting or contracting STIs through oral sex.

For example, you can use barriers like condoms during oral sex.

You can use outside condoms for oral sex involving a penis, and dental dams and inside condoms for oral sex involving the vulva or anus.

Before using a barrier, check to make sure the material has no cuts or tears.

Don’t have a dental dam?

You can make your own with an inside or outside condom:

  1. Cut the tip of the condom off.
  2. Cut down the side of the condom.
  3. You now have a square of material.
  4. Place this material on the vulva or anus before performing oral sex.

Keep in mind, though, that barrier methods can only lower the chances of contracting or transmitting an STI during oral sex. No method can offer total protection.

In addition to using barrier methods, it’s a good idea to get tested for STIs regularly. Testing can include oral exams.

For STI screenings, the CDC advises, at minimum:

  • yearly testing for chlamydia and gonorrhea for all sexually active women less than 25 years old
  • yearly testing for chlamydia and gonorrhea for all sexually active men who have sex with men
  • yearly testing for syphilis for men who have sex with men
  • yearly testing for all STIs for people with new or multiple sex partners
  • yearly testing for all STIs for pregnant people
  • one-time testing for HIV for all people ages 13 to 64

You can visit your doctor or a health clinic to get screened for HIV and other STIs. Many clinics offer free or low cost testing options.

What you can expect from the test will differ for each condition. The types of tests include:

  • Chlamydia and gonorrhea. This test involves a urine sample or swab of your genital area, throat, or rectum.
  • HIV. An HIV test requires a swab from inside your mouth or a blood sample.
  • Herpes. If you have symptoms, the test involves a swab of the affected area. If you do not have symptoms, a blood test can detect HSV.
  • Syphilis. This test involves a blood sample or swab taken from a sore.
  • HPV (warts of the mouth or throat). This test involves a visual diagnosis if you have symptoms, or a Pap test, also known as a Pap smear.

If you’re sexually active, it’s a good idea to get regular STI screening.

You may want to get screened right away if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • unusual discharge from your vagina, penis, or anus
  • itching or burning in your genitals
  • sores, warts, or bumps in your mouth or near your genitals
  • genital rashes
  • unexplained pain in your throat or mouth
  • pain in the pelvis or lower abdominal region
  • unusual vaginal bleeding
  • pain during penetrative sex

You might also want to consider STI screening if:

  • a current or previous sexual partner has or thinks they may have an STI
  • you’re planning to have sex with a new partner
  • you had a sexual encounter without using a barrier method

To get an STI screening, you can book an appointment with your doctor’s office, a local clinic, or Planned Parenthood. Some pharmacies also offer STI screening.

Interested in at-home screening? Check out our guide to the seven best options for home test kits.

What STDs can you get from oral sex?

A number of STIs can be transmitted through oral sex, including:

  • chlamydia
  • gonorrhea
  • syphilis
  • herpes, including HSV-1 and HSV-2
  • HPV
  • HIV

What are the symptoms of syphilis?

The three stages of syphilis each have their own symptoms.

The first stage is also called primary syphilis. Symptoms include painless, round sores, known as chancres, on your genitals, rectum, or mouth. You might not notice this sore, and it may disappear after about 2 to 6 weeks.

Secondary syphilis is the second stage. It’s usually characterized by a skin rash on the palms of your hands and soles of your feet. This rash is painless and does not itch.

Other possible symptoms of secondary syphilis include:

Between secondary and tertiary syphilis, the condition has a latent stage. This stage can last for years and involves no signs or symptoms.

The third stage, tertiary syphilis, can occur years or decades after the initial infection. It can affect your nerves, organs, and joints. It can result in:

Antibiotics can cure syphilis if the condition is detected early.

What are the symptoms of gonorrhea?

The symptoms of gonorrhea can include:

  • pain or burning during urination
  • greater frequency or urgency of urination
  • a pus-like discharge or drip from your penis
  • discoloration and swelling at the penis opening
  • testicular swelling or pain
  • watery, creamy, or greenish vaginal discharge
  • unusual vaginal bleeding
  • pain during penetrative anal or vaginal sex
  • sharp pain in your lower abdomen
  • itching and pain in your anus
  • rectal bleeding or discharge
  • pain during bowel movements
  • a persistent sore throat
  • inflammation and redness in your throat
  • fever

Gonorrhea often does not involve symptoms, so many people have this STI without knowing it.

It’s possible to acquire STIs through any sexual contact, including oral sex.

Wearing a condom or other barrier method — correctly and every time — is the only way to lower the risk of contracting or transmitting an STI. Just keep in mind that barrier methods don’t completely remove this risk.

If you’re sexually active, regular STI screening is a good option. The sooner you know your status, the earlier you can get treatment.