Lots of people take heart knowing they can't get pregnant while performing or receiving oral sex. But that doesn't mean you should necessarily let your guard down quickly.
Oral isn't entirely risk-free; it's still entirely possible to get a sexually transmitted infection. In fact, you can orally transmit most STIs, said Dr. Ryan Berglund, a urologist and men's health expert at Cleveland Clinic.
"The most concerning virus is the human papillomavirus which causes genital warts, but has also been linked to cervical, penile, anal and head and neck cancers," he said. Roughly 76 million Americans have the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is often symptomless and usually goes away on its own in people under age 30 but can, in rare instances, lead to those more concerning health problems.
Other infections you can pick up via oral sex are "herpes, HIV, trichomoniasis, hepatitis A, B and C," said Sunny Rodgers, a Los Angeles-based clinical sexologist and ambassador for the American Sexual Health Association. "Additionally, it is also possible to contract genital warts and pubic lice.
STIs are often invisible
STIs can be symptomless, so you might not notice any infection-related problems in a partner before performing or receiving oral sex. This is the same reason why most sexual health educators have moved away from using "sexually transmitted disease" (or STDs) to the more appropriate term "sexually transmitted infection." While they are one and the same, the "disease" is misleading, Rodgers said.
"Disease insinuates a medical problem that will have an apparent sign or symptom," she said. "Most people infected with common STDs are symptomless, or display mild symptoms, so the sexually transmitted virus or bacteria could be more appropriately described as an infection."
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 10 percent of men and five to 30 percent of women with chlamydia show symptoms. Some estimates suggest that more than 90 percent of those with genital herpes will never be diagnosed; the red, painful sores associated with the condition can actually be mistaken for simple pimples or ingrown hairs. Gonorrhea is most common among women ages 15 to 24, and can be spread while symptomless. And if you do have symptoms, they might be mild, like vaginal discharge or burning during urination.
The invisible nature of most infections is why you need to get tested. Of course, if you or a partner notices sores, changes in urination, pain in the genitals or other abnormal symptoms, visit your doctor. But getting an STI test regardless of symptoms is also highly recommended, said Dr. Christine Greves, a board-certified ob/gyn and women's health expert at Orlando Health in Florida.
"The only way to prevent an STI is to abstain," she said. "There are ways of lowering risk using different barriers, but I recommend getting regularly tested to all my female patients and their partners."
Your doctor can advise you on the best course of action if you have an STI. Gonorrhea and chlamydia can be treated with antibiotics. Antivirals can shorten or decrease outbreaks of herpes, and nitroimidazoles can be prescribed to reduce your risk of transmission and shorten symptoms of trichomoniasis.
What you can do to protect yourself during oral sex
First and foremost, get tested and get treatment before engaging in sex of any kind ― including oral sex. If you notice an abnormal lesion on your partner's genitals, don't engage in oral. "The presence of active disease or sores on the genitals or mouth of either party will increase the risk of transmission," Berglund said. See your doctor, finish the entire course of treatment and listen to medical advice before you have sex.
Barriers can also lower your risk of contracting or passing an STI. "Condoms and dental dams, which are thin sheets of latex, can be used during oral sex," Rodgers said. A dental dam is applied over the vaginal opening; in a pinch, a condom can be fashioned into a dental dam and you can also use water-based lube for more sensation.
There are also other ways you can physically connect with your partner that are risk-free or lower risk. Other sexual activities that lower the possibility of spreading an STI are kissing, fondling, masturbation or mutual masturbation, Rodgers said.
"Realistically, there is no such thing as 100 percent safe sex, but rather safer sex with regular STI testing and the use of precautionary measures," Rodgers said. "The more knowledge a person has, the better."
Don't skip steps when it comes to your health, sexual or otherwise. Get educated, get tested and then get it on.