Is Oral Sex Really Safer Sex?

It is not uncommon for people to assume oral sex is safer than penetrative sex, but the truth is condomless sex of any kind is inherently risky. In particular, the risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is high if you don't take the right precautions.

Learn more about common sexually transmitted infections and the risks you may face if you engage in oral sex without physical protection.

what to know about STIs and oral sex

Verywell / Laura Porter


Oral sex is a relatively low-risk activity for HIV transmission, particularly when compared to sexual activity. Although such transmission is rare, it is possible to transmit HIV through oral sex.

Can HIV be transmitted through oral sex?

The risk of HIV is largely limited to the person performing oral sex. Even so, the per-act risk is considered low, hovering at around 0.04% in high-risk gay and bisexual men.

Using latex or polyurethane external condoms, internal condoms, dental dams, or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) are effective ways to reduce your chances of contracting HIV when engaging in oral sex.

If you choose to forego physical protection for oral sex, you should know that the risk of HIV transmission increases:

  • If the person performing the act has cuts or sores in their mouth
  • If ejaculation takes place in the mouth
  • If the individual receiving oral sex has any other STIs.


Although genital herpes and oral herpes are usually caused by different strains of the herpes simplex virus (HSV-2 and HSV-1, respectively), it is possible for either virus to infect either site. Therefore, it is possible to transmit herpes during oral sex. Unlike HIV, the herpes virus can be readily spread from either partner during oral sex.

Risk for herpes is higher with oral sex

According to a 2019 study published in the journal BMC Medicine, the majority of HSV infections are the result of oral sex rather than genital-to-genital sex.

The risk of herpes during oral sex is significant and can even occur when symptoms are not present. External and internal condoms and other barriers can significantly reduce the risk of transmitting herpes during oral sex. However, external and internal condoms are not completely effective, since the virus can spread from skin to skin.

Prophylactic medications, such as Zovirax (acyclovir), can reduce the likelihood of both outbreaks and transmitting the herpes virus to your partner, but they can not eliminate the risk entirely.

You can have herpes without symptoms

Some people living with herpes don't experience any obvious or regular symptoms - which can make the disease difficult to identify in a sexual partner. Guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about sexually transmitted infections, most recently updated in 2021, recommend that people with asymptomatic herpes receive education about how to identify a flareup.

Human Papillomavirus

It is possible to transmit human papillomavirus (HPV) through oral sex. In fact, it is believed that HPV acquired while performing oral sex is a major risk factor for oral and throat cancers and it is associated with recurrent respiratory papillomatosis. HPV can also appear in the oral cavity through vertical transmission.

As with herpes, it seems likely that the use of external or internal condoms or dental dams during oral sex should reduce the risk of infection, but they will not necessarily eliminate it entirely. This is because, as with herpes, HPV spreads via skin-to-skin contact, not through bodily fluids.


In recent years, teenagers with throat infections caused by gonorrhea have often been in the news. Gonorrhea can be transmitted in both directions when oral sex is performed on a penis. Throat infections with gonorrhea are notoriously difficult to treat.

However, transmission in the other direction is relatively unlikely since the site of infection is the cervix. That's a part of the female anatomy not usually reached during cunnilingus. External and internal condoms and dental dams should be extremely effective in preventing the transmission of gonorrhea during oral sex.

Relative risk rates for gonorrhea higher in men

The rate of oral gonorrhea is especially high in gay and bisexual men, with some STI clinics reporting that up to 6.5% of men of who have sex with men (MSM) have pharyngeal gonorrhea (gonorrhea of the throat).


It is possible to transmit chlamydia during fellatio, and both the recipient and the person performing oral sex are at risk. There has been little research on whether it is possible to transmit chlamydia during cunnilingus, however, due to the similarity of the diseases, the infection risk is probably similar to that for gonorrhea.


Syphilis is extremely easy to transmit via oral sex. In the United States, the per-act risk of syphilis via oral sex is around 1%—a significant number given the frequency of oral sex in young sexually active people.

Although syphilis can only be transmitted in the presence of symptoms, during the primary and secondary stages of the disease, the painless sores it causes are easy to miss. Therefore, many people don't know they have syphilis symptoms when they transmit syphilis to their partners.

Hepatitis B

The research is inconclusive as to whether or not hepatitis B can be transmitted via oral sex. Oral-anal contact, however, is definitely a risk factor for hepatitis A infection. It may also be a risk factor for hepatitis B.

Fortunately, both hepatitis A and B can be prevented by vaccines. If you practice rimming, you should talk to your healthcare provider about getting vaccinated. Vaccination is a good idea in any case, and the hepatitis B vaccine is currently recommended for all children and many groups of adults.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are signs and symptoms of STIs in the mouth?

Signs of STIs in the mouth include sores or blisters in or around the mouth, sore throat, difficulty swallowing, redness in the mouth or throat, white spots in the mouth, and inflamed tonsils or lymph nodes. But there may be no symptoms at all, which is why it's important to protect yourself with prophylactic devices, such as external and internal condoms.

What are the best ways to practice safer oral sex?

Barrier methods are the only way to protect against STIs during oral sex. This includes external condoms, internal condoms, and dental dams. If you or your partner are allergic to latex, a plastic condom will also help to protect you. However, nothing is 100% safe except for refraining from sexual activity.

Is there anything that increases the chances of getting an STI from oral sex?

Some risk factors that may increase someone's chances of getting STIs during oral sex include exposure to ejaculate, poor oral hygiene that may promote infections in the mouth, and having sores or open wounds in the mouth or on the genitals.

A Word From Verywell

It is possible to reduce the risk of getting an oral sex STI by using barriers during oral sex. Doing so won't eliminate the risk of diseases such as syphilis and herpes, which are transmitted skin-to-skin. However, practicing safer sex will greatly reduce the risk of oral sex STIs.

In the end, unprotected oral sex puts you at risk for numerous sexually transmitted diseases. If you perform oral sex without physical protection on your sexual partners, you should mention it to your healthcare provider. The healthcare provider may want to check your throat when screening you for other STIs.

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11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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