It’s time to dispel a myth that no doubt still circulates through high school cafeterias nationwide: You can, in fact, contract an STD from oral sex. And as always, getting tested is the only way to know for sure if you’ve done so.
But how common is it? And furthermore, which STDs are seen more often in people who have oral sex?
First, you should know that oral sex is, perhaps unsurprisingly, very popular. Almost 85 percent of sexually active adults, ages 18 to 44, reported having oral sex at least once. Unfortunately, among young adults and teens, the belief that oral sex is risk-free is still alive and well. In fact, one study found that it’s one of the top reasons teens give for choosing oral sex over vaginal sex. Yes, the risk is generally lower for people to contract STDs from oral sex than from vaginal sex, but that doesn’t make it any safer.
Anyone who engages in oral sex with an infected partner can contract a disease or infection in the throat, mouth, genitals, or rectum. The chances of getting or spreading an STD through oral sex depends on a few different factors: the type of STD, the sex acts being engaged in, the number of sex acts performed, and how common the disease is among the population in which the sex partners belong.
The following list highlights the type of STDs a person can get from oral sex, as well as common symptoms, risk factors, and clinical treatment associated with each:
Chlamydia is one of the most common STDs to get from oral sex. In fact, in the U.S., it’s the most common STD in general. Both men and women can contract this bacterial disease through vaginal or oral sex. When contracted orally, chlamydia symptoms typically presents itself in the throat, genitals, urinary tract, or rectum. If a person develops chlamydia of the throat, initial symptoms aren’t typical; instead, they develop over time and can manifest as painless mouth sores, white spots that resemble strep throat, and general tonsillitis. Left untreated, the disease can be spread to other uninfected partners, primarily by an infected person performing oral sex on a male’s penis.
In women who have chlamydia genitally, rectally, or urinarily, it can cause pelvic inflammatory disease; this can lead to infertility or even ectopic pregnancies. In men, epididymitis is possible, which the Centers for Disease Control describes as a “painful condition of the ducts attached to the testicles that may lead to ductal scarring.” Finally, both men and women infected with chlamydia often have a higher risk of contracting or spreading HIV.
The good news? Chlamydia can be cured through proper medicine.
Just like chlamydia, gonorrhea can affect the throat, genitals, urinary tract, and rectum (in both men and women). It, too, is one of the most common STDs to get from oral sex. At first, gonorrhea symptoms may not present themselves, but a sore throat can serve as an early indicator. Once the STD is in full-swing, symptoms can include: discharge from a vagina or penis; a burning sensation when urinating; rectal pain or discharge; and swollen or painful testicles. Throat infections are actually more difficult to cure for gonorrhea (than genital or rectal infections), but they can be treated with antibiotics. Like chlamydia, women who are infected with gonorrhea can experience cause pelvic inflammatory disease. Additionally, the risk of contracting or spreading HIV is increased in men and women who have gonorrhea.
However, gonorrhea that affects the genitals or rectum can also be cured through the right medicine.
Syphilis is a common STD that can be spread through both vaginal and oral sex. When a person contracts syphilis, he or she can be infected in the mouth, throat, lips, genitals, rectum, or anus. Unfortunately, this disease is often referred to as “The Great Pretender,” as syphilis symptoms mimic those of many other ailments. Common symptoms of syphilis can include:
- painless ulcers/sores that appear on the mouth, lips, or throat; they can also appear on the skin, genitals, or anus
- a rash that appears on the palms of your hands or soles of your feet
- flu-like symptoms
Eventually, after experiencing the primary and secondary stages of syphilis (which are characterized by the above symptoms), the latent stage will hit: Here, no symptoms are present and the disease lies “dormant,” but it still very much exists in the body. Many people believe discontinuing treatment is OK at this stage, but it is highly discouraged.
In some cases, if a pregnant woman contracts syphilis, the disease can spread to the baby and cause serious complications. Like chlamydia and gonorrhea, a person with syphilis is also at higher risk for contracting or spreading HIV. However, syphilis can be treated with proper medication.
Like the rest of its counterparts, herpes is incredibly common when it comes to STDs you can get from oral sex. When herpes is contracted through oral sex, potentially infected areas include the lips, mouth, throat, genitals, anus, rectum, and buttocks. The most common herpes symptoms are the presence of warts or lesions. In its early stages, however, many infected people don’t know they have herpes because they present no symptoms. Similar to syphilis, the herpes virus can lie dormant in infected people, but it can flare up from time to time, thus becoming “active.” In these instances, warts or lesions will often appear.
Herpes cannot be cured, but treatment options exist to alleviate symptoms. It’s very important to note that, even with treatment, herpes can still be passed on to sexual partners both orally and vaginally. And like the other diseases on this list, herpes increases your risk for HIV.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in general, regardless of the sexual act it was contracted through. When contracted orally, the affected areas can include the mouth, throat, genital area, vagina, cervix, anus, or rectum. You might be wondering, “How can a cervix be affected if we’re only having oral sex?” Certain strains of HPV can cause cervical cancer in women, so regardless of how the virus enters the body, it can still affect organs like the cervix. While women seem to glean more nefarious symptoms from HPV, men can experience a few, too. In fact, instances of penile and anal cancer in men (while rare) are possible.
HPV doesn’t typically present any symptoms, so it can be hard to know whether you’ve contracted it. Some strains of HPV, however, do display symptoms in the form of warts or lesions; these are almost always harmless. And believe it or not, there is a silver lining to contracting a strain of HPV that is accompanied by warts: For women, it means no chance of cervical cancer. HPV strains that present warts as symptoms are not the same strains that are linked to cervical cancer.
While HPV is not curable, it is preventable through an HPV vaccine, typically administered at a women’s or men’s health clinic.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
The risk of contracting HIV is often higher through vaginal or anal sex, but it can still occur through oral sex. HIV is entirely different in nature compared to the other diseases on this list in that it attacks a person’s immune system. The progression of this STD can be long and slow, and HIV symptoms may not appear for several years. If and when symptoms arise, they can resemble the flu bug. Having HIV can increase a person’s risk of getting certain cancers or infections. There is no cure for HIV, but medications like antiviral drugs can help a person live a longer, more quality life.
If this list is any indication, the myth is shot: You can get an STD from oral sex just as easily as you can from vaginal. The good news is that the majority of these diseases are curable, and more importantly, they’re preventable: Practicing safe sex through the “barrier method” (the use of condoms and dental dams) is a first step. And if you suspect that you may have an STD, get tested today.