Oral sex certainly didn’t “begin in 1963”, though arguably the sexual revolution in the 1960s increased its popularity. Yet in spite of how pervasive it has become in modern society, many people are unaware that it carries with it a number of risks. Oral sex refers to the use of the tongue and mouth to provide sexual pleasure to one’s partner via their genital or anal area. Oral sex is frequently seen as a much safer form of sexual activity than full intercourse, but it is dangerous to believe that it is completely free of risk, as although oral sex may remove the chance of pregnancy completely, sexually transmitted infections remain a real possibility.

The popularity of oral sex

Once considered edgy and taboo, oral sex has entered the mainstream over the course of the last few decades, and according to national statistics from the United Kingdom at least, the great majority of people have oral sex experience, often from a surprisingly young age. Oral sex can be a healthy and enjoyable aspect of an adult relationship, but many people are less informed than they could be about the activity.

How risky is oral sex?

The question of just how risky oral sex is can be a very tricky one for researchers to actually answer, not least because the people who engage in the practice usually also engage in other forms of sexual activity – making them at risk of catching a sexually transmitted infection from those as well. However, there are definitely some sexually transmitted infections that people are at greater risk of contracting if they participate in oral sex.

The National Health Service says that commonly spread sexually transmitted infections via oral sex include the likes of gonorrhoea, syphilis and genital herpes. Genital warts, hepatitis A, B and C, chlamydia and even HIV, while less common, can also still be contracted during oral sex. A professor at the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina, Peter Leone, says that HIV is not generally considered to be transmitted orally, but that there are caveats to that, such as oral sex with someone who may have bleeding or multiple lesions.

The risk factors at play in oral sex are also dependent on a variety of different factors such as gender, the nature of the oral sex acts engaged in, and the number of sexual partners involved.

Oral sex and cancer

Throat cancer can also result from oral sex, as the human papillomavirus, also commonly known as HPV, is able to transmit between partners during it. Some tonsil and throat cancers have been found by researchers to be most likely caused by a particular kind of HPV. The good news is that although HPV is a common infection, it does not always result in cancer – and those cancers that are the result of HPV are generally much more treatable than those caused by drinking and smoking. In recent years HPV vaccines have been commonly prescribed to young girls in the UK.

How to stay safe

People who want to make sure that they remain safe while engaging in oral sex should always make sure that they or their partner wear a condom or, for women, a dam to cover female genitals. Barrier protection of these kinds reduces the chances of contracting a sexually transmitted infection by a considerable amount, and yet the great majority of people fail to use the same protection as they would for full intercourse, according to many large surveys of the sexual habits of both teenagers and adults who are sexually active. This seems to be due to many people still being unaware that sexually transmitted infections can be spread orally, or not believing in the severity of the associated health risks. Barrier protection is especially important for those performing oral sex on a male partner, as to do so without a condom is much riskier than for other kinds of oral sex.

It is also of vital importance to talk to your partner about their STI status, and inform your healthcare professional about the nature of the sexual activities you are engaging with. People should refrain from engaging in oral sex in the event that they have bleeding gums or either partner has sores around the anus, mouth, penis or vagina.