Which STIs Can You Actually Get From Oral Sex?

Photographed by Nicolas Bloise.
It's no question that sex education in the United States is abysmal (and might be getting even worse), but there's one safe-sex rule that pretty much everyone knows: Use condoms.
Most people know that condoms greatly reduce the risk of STI transmission and pregnancy during P-in-V sex, and many are aware that condoms make anal sex safer, too. But, what about oral sex?
It's still important to use protection during oral sex, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While penetration-centric sex education makes it seem as if you don't need to (after all, no one gets pregnant from going down on someone), you can get STIs from oral sex.
It's difficult to know exactly how risky it is to have oral sex without protection, because many people who have oral sex end up also having penetrative sex, according to the CDC. In those cases, it's hard to tell whether someone contracted an STI because of oral sex, penetrative sex, or both. Regardless, doctors know that many STIs do spread through oral sex including: chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, HPV (human papillomavirus), HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), and trichomoniasis.
In fact, giving oral sex to someone who has an infected vagina, penis, or rectum can result in getting an STI in your throat, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, or HPV, according to the American Sexual Health Association. Having an infected throat can later cause the STI to spread to another partner's genitals. Infections like chlamydia or gonorrhea sometimes don't have any symptoms or might just cause a sore throat, according to the CDC. Both syphilis and herpes, however, can cause ulcers or sores on the lips, mouth, throat, and skin.
It's also possible to pass STIs through oral sex if the partner who has infected genitals isn't showing any symptoms. So, it's vital that you and your partner have been tested and aren't having sex with anyone else outside of your fluid-bonded relationship, or that you use protection.
So, how does someone protect themselves during oral sex? Most people will automatically think back to the common belief that condoms equal safe sex. But condoms only work if you're going down on someone who has a penis. That completely leaves out queer women who are having oral sex with each other, straight or bisexual men who perform oral sex on vulvas, and anyone who's having anilingus (oral sex on the anus). The sad fact is that no one tells you how to have safe oral sex with a vulva.
So, we'll tell you: use a dental dam. Dental dams are thin squares of latex or polyurethane that people can lay down on top of a vulva or an anus to create a barrier for oral sex, according to the CDC. They should be sold in the same aisle as condoms, but if you can't find any dental dam, it's easy to create one. Just take a condom, cut off the tip and the base, and then snip up one side. You should be left with a square of latex. (Pro tip: Regular condoms can taste a bit too much like plastic, so consider using a flavored condom or flavored lube.)
While putting a sheet of latex over someone's genitals might not seem very sexy, it's important to avoid spreading STI infections. And, using dental dams can actually be really hot. "Some think that the use of latex can interfere with pleasure, but that is simply not the case," Nicole Williams, MD, a gynecologist in Chicago, previously told Refinery29. "Applying a lubricant to the side facing the genitals can markedly increase the pleasurable effect of oral sex with the dam."
Read these stories next:

More from Sex & Relationships

R29 Original Series