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Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections spread via sexual acts. Health experts also refer to them as sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
In some cases, you can get an STD even without penetration. You can also acquire STDs from having oral sex or skin-to-skin contact with the genitals. You don't need to have vaginal or anal sex to get an infection.
It’s important to know how STDs are spread in order to prevent them.
“The prevention of STDs spreading depends largely on knowing your STD status so you can get treated right away,” says expert Dr. Rizza Mira.
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infections spread through sexual contact. They can be transmitted via both penetrative and non-penetrative acts, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex.
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All STIs start out as infections from viruses, bacteria, or parasites acquired through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. They become diseases when they cause symptoms that disrupt the body’s normal functions.
If an STI goes away without causing health problems, it may not be considered an STD.
Although the two terms are distinct, most health authorities use them interchangeably, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Others prefer to use the term STD since it’s been around longer and people are more familiar with it.
An STD starts out as an STI. It becomes a disease when the infection causes symptoms and health problems that disrupt the body's normal function.
Oral sex used to be a hot topic. People debated about whether or not it was a form of sex.
Nowadays, however, it’s commonly accepted as a sexual activity. Both men and women can give and receive oral sex as an enjoyable part of their sex lives.
Medical experts define oral sex as the use of your mouth, lips, or tongue to arouse your partner’s genitals and anus. People have colloquial terms for it, like "blowjob," "giving head," or "going down on someone."1
Oral sex has medical terms, too. For example, performing oral sex on a woman’s genitalia—vagina, vulva, and clitoris—is called cunnilingus.
On the other hand, fellatio is the medical term for when a man receives oral sex on his penis.
If the act involves the anus, it’s called anilingus.
“Oral sex is a common pathway for STD spread. Some STDs can infect the mouth or the genital area of the person receiving oral sex. Human Immunodeficiency Virus, however, carries almost no risk of being transmitted through the oral route,” says Dr. Mira.
Oral sex is a commonly accepted sexual activity. It involves the use of your mouth, lips, or tongue to arouse the other person's genitals or anus.
No. Oral sex is not "safer" than penetrative sex (vaginal or anal).
It’s not unusual for some of us to think that oral sex is less risky than penetrative sex because there’s no pregnancy risk involved. But the risk of pregnancy may not be as urgent as the risk of a life-changing disease.
Many people also mistakenly believe that certain sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) cannot be transmitted through oral sex.
The truth is any kind of condomless sex, including oral sex, carries a significant risk of contracting and spreading STDs. You’re still likely to come in contact with genital fluids in oral sex, which is how most STDs are spread.
It’s hard to compare the risk of contracting certain STDs from each sexual act type. For instance, most people engage in oral sex as a part of foreplay for anal or vaginal sex.
Oral sex is not safer than vaginal or anal sex. It still carries the risk of acquiring STDs since it still involves exchanging of bodily fluids, like saliva or sexual fluids.
You can contract STIs through oral sex since it involves close contact with the genitals and the exchange of bodily fluids like semen and saliva.
These are the most common STDs that you can get from having unprotected oral sex with an infected person.
The bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae causes gonorrhea infection. It’s present in semen and vaginal fluids.
You can contract it when you have unprotected sex with an infected person. Gonorrhea from oral sex can infect your throat.
However, people who have oral sex may sometimes engage in vaginal or anal sex, too. This can likely spread the bacteria to the genitals.
“These infections are harder to diagnose and treat compared to genital gonorrhea infections,” says Dr. Mira.
Gonorrhea can also infect the genitals, urinary tract, and rectum. The infection often doesn't show signs, but here are some potential indicators:
Your doctor will prescribe the proper antibiotics to treat the infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends another round of testing if the antibiotic treatment doesn’t clear the signs of gonorrhea.2
Your sexual partner must also undergo STI testing on the off chance that they were exposed to the bacteria. Sexual partners must refrain from sexual activity seven days after starting treatment.
Gonorrhea is caused by a bacteria (Neisseria gonorrhea) present in semen and vaginal fluids. You can catch it through unprotected sex with an infected person. It can be treated with a round of antibiotics.
Syphilis is caused by the bacteria called Treponema pallidum. It spreads through direct contact with syphilis sores, which can happen during oral sex and other sexual circumstances.
Weeks after you contract syphilis from oral sex, you may get painful sores or blisters on your mouth, lips, and throat.
The infection can spread to other body parts like the genital area and anus if these areas are also exposed to the sores of the infected person.
Like gonorrhea, syphilis infections often don’t have symptoms. But in some cases, you may experience the following:
Syphilis can be treated with antibiotic medications. Sexual partners also need testing and treatment. Pregnant mothers can also pass the infection to their children.
One thing to note is that, after initial infection, the bacteria can remain inactive in the body for years before it becomes active again.
If you don’t get treated, you may develop complications like tertiary syphilis, in which the infection stays in the body and can possibly damage your organs like the heart and blood vessels.3
Syphilis is caused by a bacteria (Treponema pallidum). Most syphilis infections are unrecognized or don't show symptoms. It can be treated with antibiotic medications.
Herpes is an STD caused by a virus. It has two types: herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).
HSV-1 is mainly spread through oral sex. Healthcare experts often link it to oral herpes or cold sores in the mouth area. On the other hand, HSV-2 is often associated with genital herpes.
But, since most people who engage in oral sex may also have vaginal or anal sex, HSV-1 can spread to your genital and anal area and cause painful sores.
CDC explains that both herpes types can cause oral and genital herpes. Symptoms usually show up within two to 12 days after exposure to the virus.4
Most people who have contracted herpes won’t immediately know they have it. The cold sores caused by herpes can appear as pimples or other skin conditions. This is known as an “outbreak.”
During the first herpes outbreak, you may notice these symptoms:
Herpes is a long-term condition that currently has no cure. However, antiviral treatments help prevent or minimize outbreaks.
Anti-herpes medications lower the risk of transmitting the infection to your sexual partners.
Herpes is an STD caused by a virus. It has two types, and both can cause oral and genital cold sores, which is the first sign of a herpes outbreak. Antiviral treatments can prevent or minimize outbreaks.
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is an STD caused by more than 200 different viruses. You can contract or spread HPV through unprotected oral, vaginal, and anal sex with an infected person.
Most viruses that cause HPV don’t bring symptoms. But, some HPV infections cause warts in different body parts like the mouth, throat, and genitals. In women, some HPV types are also the culprit for cervical cancer.
For example, HPV type 6 and HPV type 11 cause most cases of respiratory or laryngeal papillomatosis that affects the mouth and throat. They may cause the following symptoms:5
HPV has no cure, although the body clears most HPV transmissions. You can have surgery and other treatments to remove warts in the mouth and throat.
The US Food and Drug Administration approved a vaccine to prevent the spread of the common high-risk HPV strains. It can be given to anyone between the ages of 11 to 45.6
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is an STD resulting from 200 different viruses, some of which can cause warts in different body parts. Currently, it has no cure; however, a vaccine can protect you from most of the genital warts-causing HPV strains.
Chlamydia is an STD caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis. According to the CDC, they can be spread through oral sex.
However, unprotected vaginal and anal sex have higher chances of transmitting the bacteria.
Chlamydia infections are often asymptomatic or show no signs. But if you experience symptoms, they may appear within one to three weeks from your first exposure.7
The bacteria can affect your throat but rarely causes symptoms aside from a sore throat. Chlamydia also affects your genitals, urinary tract, and rectum.
While most infections in these areas show no symptoms, you may potentially experience the following signs:
Chlamydia is curable with the proper medications. However, if you leave it untreated, the infection can spread to your reproductive organs. Like other infections, sexual partners should also be treated.
Such complications with your reproductive organs can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease that may eventually cause infertility.8
Chlamydia is an STD caused by a bacteria (Chlamydia trachomatis). It can be cured with the proper medications. However, if left untreated for a time, the infection may advance and affect your reproductive organs.
Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is an STD caused by a virus that attacks your body’s immune system.
You can catch it by having unprotected vaginal and anal sex with an HIV-positive person. The CDC says that there’s an extremely low risk of acquiring HIV through oral sex.
However, it’s difficult to assess the exact risk since people who engage in oral sex also end up having anal and vaginal sex.
If you acquire HIV, you may experience symptoms that resemble the flu after a month, such as:
It’s also possible that you won’t feel or notice any signs of HIV for years.
Antiretroviral treatments can help manage and slow down its effects on your body.
Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is an STD caused by a virus that invades the body’s immune system. It has flu-like symptoms you may experience within a month of acquiring the STD. Only antiretroviral treatments can help manage its effects.
A number of things can put you at a higher risk for STDs. Here are some of the factors that can increase your STD risk from oral sex.
Your oral health impacts the spread of oral STDs. Conditions like a cut in your mouth, bleeding gums or gum disease, and lip sores give the bacteria or infection a way to enter your body.
Gender-based inequities contribute to the spread of STDs. Gender inequities are often rooted in how society views men and women differently.
It affects certain sexual behaviors. For example, it’s acceptable for men to have lots of sexual partners, while women are often shamed if they have more than one.
Society sees sexuality as a way for men to express their masculinity and increase social status. This increases not only men’s risk of infection but also that of their partners.
Multiple studies also show that women are more at risk of STDs for socio-economic reasons. For instance, women from low-income status may be tempted to go into sex work because they lack options.
Sex education plays an important role in protecting yourself not just from unplanned pregnancies but also from getting STDs.
It aims to provide information to young people about reproductive health and its issues. It also encourages them to practice safe sex through contraception or STD protection.
However, not everyone has access to knowledge about safe sex practices. Lacking awareness of the dos and don’ts of safe oral sex can put you at a higher risk of contracting oral STDs.
When you have multiple sexual partners, your risk of contracting STDs is more likely to increase.
Having more sexual partners may mean a higher possibility that one or more of them have an STD. This is true if you or any of your sexual partners don’t use condoms or STD protection.
Not using barrier methods like condoms increases your risk of acquiring STDs from oral sex. Most STDs are spread through direct contact with the genitals and bodily fluids of an infected partner.
Condoms lessen your risk since it minimizes skin-to-skin contact. You also avoid exposure to sores or warts that may be signs of an STD infection when you’re using barrier methods.
A dental dam is a thin, flexible latex sheet you can place over the vaginal or anal area. It minimizes mouth-to-genital or mouth-to-anus contact during oral sex.9
Dental dams also prevent fluid exchange, which is another way to lessen your risk of contracting STDs.9
Factors like poor oral health, gender inequities, lack of sexual education, having multiple partners, and unprotected oral sex can increase your risk of acquiring STDs from oral sex.
STDs have long-term effects on the body if left untreated for a period of time. Some of these health complications can be serious, which may include:10
STDs can be easily spread from one person to another. It's essential to know your STD status by getting tested. STD testing can help determine the best course of treatment to prevent long-term effects of STDs.
STDs can cause serious health complications if not treated promptly. Its long-term effects may include infertility, certain types of cancer, and ectopic pregnancy.
You can acquire STDs through any unprotected sexual contact with an infected person—including oral sex. The only way to lower your risk of contracting STDs is to practice safe sex.
You can use barrier methods, such as condoms and dental dams, to protect yourself and your partner when engaging in oral sex.
For condoms, you must make sure that they completely cover your partner's penis. Throw them away after use and change them between oral and penetrative sex if there’s any switching.
On the other hand, you can purchase dental dams, or you can make it from a regular condom. Just cut the tip and the ring off, then lay it flat on the genital area.
Don’t use condoms that have spermicides when making dental dams. They aren’t made to be put in your mouth. Also, refrain from stretching a dental dam as it may cause tearing.11
If you are sexually active, you may opt for a regular STD screening. It helps to know your sexual health status early, so you can seek medical help and treatment immediately.
Here are other steps you can practice to protect yourself from STDs during oral sex:
To lower your risk of acquiring STDs from oral sex, you must practice safe sex methods. For instance, use barrier devices, like condoms and dental dams, correctly. Health experts also recommend regular STD screenings for sexually active adults.
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