But as every dentist knows, good health begins in the mouth.
From cuisine to cunnilingus, everything we ingest affects our body’s organs and tissues. All too often, we regard protective barriers as only necessary for genital-to-genital or genital-to-anal contact. And although the risk of disease transmission is considerably lower in instances of oral stimulation, infection is possible.
Those who have multiple partners, those who do not know their own or their partner’s disease status, and those who have not discussed monogamous exclusivity with their current partner should utilize protective devices to ensure their sexual safety.
I Cannot Become Pregnant Through Oral Sex – Why Is Protection Needed?
During oral stimulation, partners are susceptible to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as HIV, herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis, genital warts, HPV, hepatitis A and B as well as other intestinal parasites. The linings of our throat and mouth are typically healthy enough to fight off some kinds of viral infection; however, they become vulnerable when minor tears and tissue breaks occur. Essentially, as with anal and vaginal sex, bacteria and viruses enter through these mini-passages directly into the bloodstream.
Herpes is the most common infection transmitted through oral sex. There are two types of the virus, HSV type 1 and 2. Type one generally manifests as sores around the mouth and type two is most often found in the genital area. However, HSV 1 and HSV 2 are happy to live in any mucous membrane. So if a person with HSV 1 gives oral sex to a partner, that partner can develop sores in the genital region. Conversely, an individual with HSV 2 on their genitals can give the virus to the mouth of the person providing oral stimulation. Once infected, herpes can only be treated – not cured – and can be transmitted to future partners. Herpes Online provides more information about the virus and tips for life after herpes.
Gonorrhea can also be transmitted during oral sex. Generally, the infection is passed from the infected genitals to the throat of the person giving oral sex. However, as with herpes, this process can work in reverse. Though the human body normally clears gonorrhea infection in the throat within a few months, genital infections frequently require an antibiotic course and untreated genital infections can cause problems in a person’s genital/reproductive tract. Also, in recent years there have been increases in antibiotic-resistant strains of gonorrhea (read more information about this on the CDC website).
Hepatitis B is transmitted via sexual fluids and so can be transmitted during oral sex. Hepatitis A and intestinal parasites are found in human fecal matter and can be passed on during anal-oral sex and potentially during cunnilingus.
There are well over 100 strains of HPV and the CDC estimates that nearly all sexually active Americans will be infected at some point in their lifetime. Luckily, HPV does not cause serious health difficulties for most people. However, some strains of HPV have been linked to cancer. For example, HPV16 is the leading cause of oropharyngeal cancer. Thus, having unprotected oral sex with a person with HPV can increase your risk of oral cancer. (HPV has also been linked to other cancers including cancers of the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, and anus.)
As many of these infections are asymptomatic, it can be difficult to know whether you or your partner has an infection. Therefore, as is the case with penetrative sex, it is safer to use a barrier method during oral sex to protect yourself and your partner until your disease status is confirmed negative and you are committed to be monogamous and exclusive with each other.
Barriers Block “Bugs”
Certain barrier contraceptive methods can be used to prevent, or greatly reduce, bacteria and viruses from entering the body during oral sex and these include condoms and dental dams.
Lubricated condoms tend to taste bad. Instead of skipping the condom, you could opt for using un-lubricated or flavored condoms. Flavor options include tropical fruit, banana, strawberry, vanilla, grape, mint, chocolate, and cola and flavored condoms are offered by leading brands such as Durex, Lifestyles, and Trustex. You also have the option of using an un-lubricated condom and adding a flavored personal lubricant.
A dental dam is a thin sheet of non-porous, usually latex, material that is draped over the vulva or anus with the purpose of preventing exchange of fluids, much like a condom. Dental dams are far less commonly found in drug stores or grocery stores than the standard male condom, but are equally important because they reduce the risk of STIs. They can be purchased in some drugstores, specialty shops, and online. Like condoms, they come in a variety of colors and flavors.
Dental dams should be checked for holes or weak spots prior to use. They must be held against the vulva or anus tightly during oral sex. SHAPE peers at University of Missouri have created an informative video demonstration about dental dams for those who would like to know more about use. To enhance pleasure for the recipient, water based lubricant can be applied to the side closest to their genitals.
Do not flip the dental dam over during oral sex, as it renders it ineffective for both parties. Like condoms, do not reuse dental dams.
DIY Dental Dam
If you do not have a dental dam on hand, dental dams can be constructed out a male condom quite easily. Take the condom out of the package and cut off the tip. Then cut down the length of the remaining cylinder. This rectangle can be used as a dental dam. Avoid using lubricated or spermicidal condoms as they may taste bad. For increased enjoyment, try using condoms that are marketed as “thin” or “sensitive” or flavored condoms.
Abby Student will graduate from Washington State University in May with a degree in strategic communication. She is an award-winning sex columnist and possesses several certificates in health and human services. In her spare time, Student volunteers with a local sexual assault and domestic violence hotline.
Reviewed and edited in April 2017.