Did you know that a third of Americans currently have a sexually transmitted infection? In fact, 50 percent of all sexually active people will have an STI by age 25, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But what exactly is an STI? And can you get one from just having oral sex?
Let me help break down the ins and outs of this not-so-commonly discussed, yet incredibly important, topic.
STIs (also known as STDs, or sexually transmitted diseases) are infections spread from person to person through sexual contact. The term STI has been deemed more appropriate, being that an individual can have an infection that does not lead to a disease.
You can’t get an STI without “sex,” but what exactly does that mean? Initially when it comes to sex, many think of vaginal or anal penetrative sex, but oral sex can also put one at risk of developing an STI. Oral sex is where the mouth (including the tongue) comes into contact with the vagina (cunnilingus), the penis (fellatio), or the anus (anilingus). Studies show that 85 percent of sexually active adults 18 to 44 years old have engaged in oral sex at least once with someone of the opposite sex.
For some STIs, like herpes and human papillomavirus (HPV), no penetration needs to occur and no fluids need to be exchanged in order for the infection to be contracted. So yes, a person can contract an STI through oral sex. The CDC estimates 20 million new infections occur every year in the U.S. That’s a lot of tongue action! While the risk for some STIs may be lower via oral than for penetrative sex, the more frequently oral sex is performed (especially with multiple partners), the higher the risk. Individuals should also consider their partners’ risk behaviors, such as whether that person uses injection drugs.
A person can be infected with an STI, yet not show any symptoms. This can be both good and bad. Our bodies attempt to protect us from harm, but this can also work against the body when an STI is introduced. If we don’t have symptoms and are not routinely getting tested, we could have an infection and unknowingly pass the STI onto our partner(s). Also, the infection could be doing some unexpressed, yet significant harm to our bodies.
Those who do have symptoms often experience one or more of these:
· Cold sores and fever blisters
· Painful or painless ulcers or sores inside the mouth
· Swollen and red tonsils
· White spots at the back of the throat
· Pain swallowing
Here are some common STIs spread through oral sex:
HPV (human papillomavirus)
HPV is the most common STI, according to the CDC. The mouth, throat, penis, vagina, rectum, and anus can get infected. Infection does not always have symptoms but can show up as warts in any of these areas. The HPV vaccine can protect against certain types of HPV. The vaccine is recommended for young people (females ages 9-26 and males 9-21), men who have sex or relationships with men, and anyone living with HIV regardless of age.
Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) Type 1 is the strain that expresses as cold sores. Sores that are on the genitals, rectum, and anus, are caused by HSV Type 2. Herpes can be present without symptoms—however, symptoms may include painful sores in the areas of infection. Antiviral medications can shorten the duration and the number of outbreaks. Currently, there is no cure for herpes.
Oral chlamydia infections affect the cells lining the throat. The most common symptom is a sore throat, or pharyngitis, lasting several days. This discomfort can be continuous or come and go, and swallowing may increase the discomfort.
Gonorrhea is caused by bacteria, and an infection transmitted orally may not show any symptoms. The most common symptom is a sore throat. Gonorrhea is curable with antibiotics, though an infection of the throat is more challenging to manage than a genital infection.
Syphilis is caused by bacteria, and sometimes shows no symptoms. Symptoms may include flu-like symptoms or painless ulcers in the mouth. Antibiotics can cure the infection. Infections not treated can lead to dementia, paralysis, changes in personality, and death.
If you are practicing oral sex, be aware of your and your partner’s STI status (you can even do at-home testing together) or use barrier protection, such as dental dams or condoms, that can also help prevent STIs.
Dr. Segun Ishmael is the founder and chief medical officer of BeSafeMeds.com, an online platform for the discreet diagnosis and treatment of STIs. He has worked in academic, hospital, and health insurance setttings, serving his community for over