Most of us have been there. You’ve met someone new, the chemistry sparks, and you start hooking up. You decide to start practicing what you thought was safer sex through foreplay and oral sex as opposed to delving straight into sexual intercourse. What you may not know is that sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can be transmitted via oral sex.
There is a common misconception that oral sex is always the safer alternative to intercourse. However, there are over 30 different STIs that can transmit through oral sex, and given that 84% of adults ages 18-44 practice oral sex at least once per year, the chances that STIs spread orally are very high.
It is therefore essential that all sexually active individuals understand the concept of an STI, how they are transmitted, and when you can order your STI home testing kits and prevent developing or transmitting an STI.
Which STIs Spread Through Oral Sex?
Oral sex, vaginal sex, or anal sex all involve skin-to-skin contact in porous areas of the body where infections may harbour.
The most common STIs that spread through oral sex are genital herpes, gonorrhoea, and syphilis.
This post will give you the breakdown before you get down on information regarding oral-sex transmitted infections.
Herpes Simplex Virus
Otherwise known as HSV, this infection can reside in your mouth and throat as well as your genital area. HSV is categorised into two varieties: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 is the main variant of the herpes simplex virus that is transmitted via oral contact and causes oral herpes, otherwise known as “cold sores”. However, participating in oral sex with HSV-1 infected individuals can result in the transmission of genital HSV-1.
HSV-2 is more commonly transmitted via sexual intercourse and is more common in females than in males. Most people infected with HSV-2 are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms which can be confused with other skin conditions.
So what are the common symptoms of Herpes Simplex Virus?
No symptom at all.
Flu-like reaction (headache or fever) when initially contracted
Painful, itchy sores at the location of the infection (cold sores around the mouth or the genitals)
The incubation time for HSV-2 infections averages around 4 days (2-12 days) post-exposure (as a reminder, the incubation time is the time between exposure to an STI and when symptoms first develop). The infected vesicles surrounding your genitals may break and form painful ulcers 2-4 weeks afterwards in a process commonly known as “herpes outbreak”.
The herpes flare or outbreak is generally when a person becomes more infective, however, they are not always contagious.
However, it is important to note that most people have some variant of herpes. Herpes can spread through other means of contact other than sexual or kissing. For example, children in nurseries can spread herpes by putting shared toys in their mouths.
Commonly termed “the clap”, gonorrhoea is notorious for being transmitted orally. Gonorrhoea can reside in your throat without any symptoms, which makes it likely to continue to be passed back and forth. Genital gonorrhoea can be more common than we think; and as the majority of the infected individuals are asymptomatic, the statistics may be much higher than anticipated.
Although the majority of infected people have no symptoms at all, those who do have symptoms from gonorrhoea present with:
Discharge from the penis or vagina
Burning urination sensation
Swollen neck glands
Treating oral gonorrhoea is slightly more difficult than treating the more common, genital variant, due to antibiotic-resistant strains; however, infection is usually treated using a course of antibiotics.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is spread through oral and intercourse sex. Once a killer in medieval times, syphilis is now commonly cured with a course of antibiotics.
As with every STI, syphilis symptoms should be treated early, as ongoing infection can lead to serious health complications down the line. The main syphilis symptoms to look out for are:
Small sores around the genitals or mouth
Rash on your chest, back, palms of hands, or on soles of the feet
Remember that although these STIs are the STIs most commonly transmitted by oral sex according to the NHS, there is still a long list of transmissible diseases out there that shouldn’t be forgotten:
Scabies (skin to skin contact)
Pubic lice (Known as “crabs” in the streets)
Molluscum Contagiosum (A series of small round bumps that occur on the skin)
Hepatitis A, B, and C
How Can I Prevent An STI From Spreading Orally?
Although keeping up with regular sexual “housekeeping” doesn’t sound like the most erotic of sexual practices, it is vital in reducing your chances of transmitting and contracting STIs through oral, vaginal, and anal sex.
After extensive research, most medical professionals agree upon the following preventative methods:
Regular STI Screening
STIs have been widely stigmatised as diseases that only those who engage in deviant sexual practices will experience. BUT, STIs do not discriminate. They can affect everyone and anyone irrespective of their sexual hygiene or their sexual practices.
Since the majority of STIs show few symptoms (or no symptoms at all), testing is the only way of knowing your infection status. You can test yourself more easily these days by ordering a kit online, receiving your discreet test kit in the post, and collecting and returning your samples to Yoxly’s laboratory.
We--and many other healthcare professionals--recommend testing before and after each new sexual partner in order to minimise your chances of contracting or transmitting an STI.
Although these are often used for vaginal and anal sex, condoms can also work prior to receiving or giving oral sex in order to minimise skin-to-skin contact and reduce the risk of oral STI transmission.
Another barrier method is a dental dam. This is a rectangular piece of latex that is used to cover the vulva before engaging in oral sex.
You and your partner(s) should normalise engaging in an open discussion about possible symptoms of STIs. Due to the absence of symptoms from the majority of STIs, you and your partner may be unwittingly carrying an infection and unintentionally pass it on.
Thus the best way to stay protected is to engage in open discussion with your partner(s), carry out a test, and get the appropriate treatment before you engage in any sexual activity.
Oral sex carries a risk of transmitting or contracting an STI just like any other sex method.
Most STIs are symptomless, and if left untreated for prolonged periods of time, they can result in more significant health complications.
However, you can considerably reduce your risk of contracting or transmitting an STI by using certain barrier methods and ensuring you are regularly screened for infections.
Hassan Thwaini is a qualified Clinical Pharmacist who has completed his Master's degree at the University of Sunderland. Since then he has not only pursued community and clinical pharmacy, but has expanded to aid in humanitarian work across the less fortunate areas of the globe. Hassan is currently working as a medical writer and has successfully been published within various nutritional websites, produced unique content for his university board, and carried out research for renowned surgeons.