By Emma Holmes
Oral sex is but a strand of a larger tapestry of pleasure and experience, whose role has evolved through generations. While our parents grew up with a societal taboo on oral sex, many people I know choose to engage in oral sex as a stepping stone towards penetrative vaginal or anal sex. In the heat of the moment, it can be hard to remember that your foreplay, too, carries risks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Here’s how to avoid STIs and recognize when you need to seek medical assistance.
Oral STIs can be transmitted from mouths, lips, and throats to genitalia and vice versa. Performing or receiving oral sex without barriers can put you at risk for oral or genital chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, HPV and HIV. Chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis can all be fully cured with the right medication, but herpes, HPV and HIV cannot be, and may lead to future complications.
While you might not think it’s the sexiest thing to lick or suck on a latex barrier, it’s a lot sexier than contracting an STI. If you’re performing or receiving oral sex on a penis, using a condom will greatly decrease your chance of giving or getting an STI. If the idea of a mouthful of lube isn’t exactly exciting, make sure you use unlubricated condoms, or spice it up with a fun flavor! For a vagina or anus, either a dental dam or a modified condom placed over the vagina or anus will help prevent infection. A dental dam is essentially a rectangular piece of rubber latex or silicone material that stays between the mouth and genitals during oral sex. You can make a dental dam by cutting the tip off a condom and cutting on one side of the remaining circular column to create a flat sheet.
Whether you’re using a condom or a dental dam, always use either water-based or silicone-based lubricants, since oil-based products can cause the barriers to break. You should never re-use a condom or dental dam, and store them in a cool, dry place where they won’t be torn or punctured.
It’s incredibly common for some STIs to not exhibit symptoms. If you have had unprotected oral sex and are concerned that you contracted an STI, there are some symptoms to look for. However, the only way to know for sure is to get professionally tested.
Chlamydia and gonorrhea very rarely show symptoms in the throat. If they do, they will feel like a sore throat. Genital chlamydia or gonorrhea frequently include discharge, burning urination, swollen testicles, rectal pain or discharge.
If contracted, syphilis may also show no symptoms. If it does, it will look like small sores on the infected area (lips, mouth, throat). It can also cause flu-like symptoms and spur a rash on the torso, hands and feet.
If herpes exhibits symptoms (it won’t always), then the carrier may have a fever or a headache, and experience itchy sores near the infection. As demonstrated by the infamous “Office” episode, this can occasionally look like a canker sore.
If you contract Human Papillomavirus (HPV) through oral sex, it can cause warts in the throat which alter your speaking voice and ability to breathe. HPV has been correlated with throat cancer, similarly to genital HPV causing cervical or penile cancer.
A final reminder: not all contraceptive methods will protect you from STIs. In fact, most will not. Arm implants, IUDs, and the pill can’t do a thing against a determined infection. Even condoms can’t fully protect people from herpes, which passes through skin-to-skin contact (as opposed to fluid transfer). The best way to prevent the unwanted spread of all of these infections is regular testing and honesty about one’s status.