Feel good by contributing – help others to gain clarity on their sexual health. Note: TBD Health Inc. is not a non-profit.
By Adrienne Ton, NP
If you’ve been paying attention to the health news, you might have heard about the latest FDA-approved latex underwear to help protect people from sexually transmitted infections (STIs) during oral sex. The underwear essentially is made of the same material as condoms and is designed to minimize the direct contact of bodily fluids and exposed surface area, therefore reducing the risk of STI exposure.
The news of its FDA-clearance has brought new attention to the topic of STIs and oral sex. And while this specific product is new, the relationship between oral sex and STIs is not new.
Oral sex is really common and is an important part of many people’s sex lives, regardless of their gender or orientation. When we talk about about oral sex, we are talking about the use of the mouth to stimulate the genital area of another partner (including a penis, vagina, and anus).
In fact, in a recent study published in 2019 which surveyed adolescents and adults, over 75% of both men and women report having given and/or received oral sex. Less than 10% of those folks report having used condoms during oral sex (1). To be fair, this survey doesn’t ask about other methods of STI protection (like dental dams or testing), but this still tells us that oral sex is common and a lot of people are likely not using protection for this.
Can you still get STI’s during oral sex?
When talking to patients about STI testing, I often hear people mainly asking for genital (i.e. penis or vagina) testing. While oral sex doesn’t carry a risk of pregnancy, oral sex can definitely cause the spread of STIs - whether it’s the person who received oral sex or the person who gave oral sex.
A lot of people talk about the symptoms of sexually transmitted infections in the genital area, so we will focus a little more on the symptoms of STIs that might show up in someone who has given oral sex. The oropharynx (a.k.a The mouth and throat) is a place that sexually transmitted infections can live. For example, symptoms of STIs in this area may include a sore throat* or maybe some abnormal lesions in the mouth (like new ulcers or bumps). A lot of STIs, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea in the throat, do not show any symptoms.
Other STIs that one can get through oral sex also include herpes virus, syphilis, and HPV, which we know to be linked to things like warts and potentially cancers. There is also a very low chance of HIV transmission with oral sex, but it’s theoretically possible.
*Please note: most sore throats are usually caused by a virus that isn’t an STI, but it’s worth talking to your healthcare provider about it if you have a suspicion that your sore throat is caused by an STI.
What can you use to protect yourself from STIs during oral sex?
We are not here to judge or tell you to stop having oral sex (we’d be telling most of the population to do that!). But we can tell you a little bit about ways that you can help protect yourself if you choose to have oral sex.
-Know your status and/or the status of your partner(s). While testing at the throat is not routinely recommended by the CDC or most healthcare providers, you can always ask about this screening if you are having oral sex. General STI screening is also important as well. -Add some barrier protection. A barrier helps protect the contact to bodily fluids and potential lesions that can spread infection. For oral sex with a penis, use a non-lubricated latex condom (or plastic if you’re allergic to latex). For oral sex with a vagina or anus, try a dental dam or cut open a condom to use as a barrier (check out the instructions here).
Yes, there is actually a whole CDC diagram on how to cut a condom to create a dental dam. This might be the only time the CDC (or any healthcare professional) will ever recommend cutting a condom.
-Good oral hygiene: Yep, you heard that right. Brush your teeth, floss, see your dentist and dental hygienist regularly. While there is more research to investigate this, we do know that poor oral health like tooth decay and gum disease can make you more susceptible to getting infections, such as sexually transmitted infections.
-Get vaccinated against HPV if you’re eligible. HPV vaccination is a great way to help prevent some strains of HPV that can lead to cancers.
Learn more Habel, M. A., Leichliter, J. S., Dittus, P. J., Spicknall, I. H., & Aral, S. O. (2018). Heterosexual Anal and Oral Sex in Adolescents and Adults in the United States, 2011-2015. Sexually transmitted diseases, 45(12), 775–782. https://doi.org/10.1097/OLQ.0000000000000889 https://www.cdc.gov/std/healthcomm/stdfact-stdriskandoralsex.htm
This article provides information about sexual health, healthcare and/or related subjects. The blog content and any linked materials herein are not intended to be, and should not be construed as a substitute for, medical or healthcare advice, diagnosis or treatment. Any reader or person with a medical concern should consult with an appropriately-licensed physician or other healthcare provider. This blog is provided purely for informational purposes. The views expressed herein are not sponsored by and do not represent the opinions of TBD HEALTH INC.