I think one of the greatest misconceptions around safe sex — especially when it comes to the spread of sexually transmitted infections — is that you only have to be cautious during vaginal or anal sex. Think again, friends. As far too many sex ed classes failed to inform us, it's totally possible to get a number of STIs from oral sex...
"Technically, most STDs can be spread through oral sex," says Dr. John Rimmer, Chief Medical Officer of Biem Health, the world's first virtual sexual health center. "The risk of such depends on the particular type of oral sex, what STD is present, and whether the 'recipient' or the 'performer' is infected. For example, the risk of acquiring HIV by giving oral sex to an HIV-positive female is very low, but the risk of acquiring HIV by giving oral sex to an HIV positive male is somewhat higher (although still lower than vaginal or anal sex)."
In other words, there are a ton of factors at play that make it more or less likely that you'll pass on, or receive, an STI during oral sex. And while the odds of spreading STIs orally are a bit lower than via anal or vaginal sex, it definitely happens.
I've been trained to treat oral sex pretty cautiously since middle school (seriously, my mom used to send links to articles about celebrities developing cancer from oral sex to my Hotmail email address). But if this is news to you, and you're wondering which STIs to be most cautious of (read: pretty much all of them) or how best to reduce your risk of contracting or spreading an STI during oral, here's what you need to know.
Which STIs Can You Spread Via Oral Sex?
As mentioned, it's possible to spread most STIs orally.
More specifically, Dr. Rimmer explains that, "Gonorrhea, syphillis, herpes, chlamydia and HPV can all be transmitted or obtained via oral to genital contact," in addition to HIV.
"Overall, oral transmission rates are often lower than genital to genital contact, but this should certainly not be misinterpreted as no risk of transmission," he says.
What Are The Most Common Symptoms?
"This all depends on which STD is present," says Dr. Rimmer.
As we know, a lot of STIs are asymptomatic — meaning you can have the infection without showing symptoms at all. That said, if you notice a sore throat or feel like you're coming down with an off-season cold or flu, you might want to visit a doctor.
"HIV may give no symptoms whatsoever, or possible flu like symptoms a week after the encounter," explains Dr. Rimmer. "Other STDs like chlamydia or gonorrhea may cause a sore throat. If left untreated in the throat, gonorrhea can spread to other parts of the body and cause fever, rash and joint pains."
Additionally, if you (or your partner) start to notice painful sores around your mouth or genital area, have unusual vaginal discharge, or begin to experience pain during sex, definitely head in for a check-up as Dr. Rimmer says these could all be indicative of an infection.
How Can You Prevent Or Limit The Spread of STIs During Oral Sex?
The million-dollar question — now that you know it's possible to get an STI via oral sex, how can you prevent it from happening? You guessed it: Use protection! Always!
"Barrier protection is a must, meaning condoms and dental dams," says Dr. Rimmer.
You can even get flavored condoms, to make the experience more enjoyable (just, um, maybe opt for something other than eggplant?).
It's also important to have open, upfront discussions with both your partners and doctors about your sexual history, if you've noticed unusual symptoms or tested positive for an infection in the past.
"Frequent testing and ownership of your sexual health... is vital to prevent spread or complications of some significant disease processes," says Dr. Rimmer. There are even apps — like Biem Health, which Dr. Rimmer helped found, which allow you have these conversations with your sexual partners and physicians in a safe space.
Just remember to be open, honest, and always always always use a condom, and you'll greatly reduce the risk of spreading (or getting) an STI during oral sex.
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