Do I really need to use condoms for oral sex?

Great question! It’s awesome that you’re thinking about your (and your partner’s) sexual health. Even though it’s generally a less risky activity than penis-in-vagina (PIV) or anal sex, some sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can still be spread from the genitals to the mouth and vice versa. These include gonorrhea, herpes, chlamydia, syphilis, HPV and hepatitis B. Using a barrier method like condoms for oral sex is a great way to help prevent the spread of STIs.

There is also a very small risk of transmitting HIV through oral sex—this risk increases if the person giving oral sex has any cuts or sores in or around their mouth, or if the person receiving oral sex ejaculates  inside of their partner’s mouth or is on their period.

Most STIs are spread through certain bodily fluids. You’re at risk if semen (come/cum), vaginal fluids, or pre-ejaculate (pre-come) touches your genitals (including your anus) or your mouth. Some STIs, like herpes and HPV, can be spread through sexual skin-to-skin contact. You can’t tell whether someone has an STI by looking at them—the most common STI symptom is NO symptoms.

Because of this, we recommend that everyone use condoms or dental dams during oral sex.

You can use condoms for oral sex involving a penis (blow job, giving head, going down on). Some people don’t like the taste of latex, but there are a ton of flavored condoms out there. Grab a few and have some fun finding a flavor you like!

For oral sex performed on someone with a vagina (cunnilinguseating out or going down on), you can use dental dams for protection. Dental dams are a thin sheet of latex (the same material used for condoms). They’re placed over the vulva (outside genitalia) of the person receiving oral sex. You can also use dental dams for any contact between a mouth and an anus (sometimes called analingus or a rim job). You can get dental dams at most drug stores or sexual health clinics, but you can also make one from a condom by cutting off the tip and then cutting it lengthwise.

In addition to using barrier methods, you and your partner can reduce the risk of getting or spreading STIs by getting tested regularly.

Definitely get tested for STIs before having (any kind of) sex with a new partner. You can also talk to your health care provider about how often you should get tested, which depends on how many partners you have, whether you always use protection, and other factors. Have an open, honest conversation with your partner about STI testing before having oral sex.

The good news? There’s no chance of pregnancy with oral sex—so long as no semen (come) or pre-ejaculate (pre-come) touches the vulva.

Remember that being sexually healthy is about more than just physical safety (even though that’s really important!). It’s also about understanding and practicing enthusiastic consent. Make sure you and your partner are checking in with each other (and yourselves!) to make sure everyone is comfortable AND excited with everything you’re doing together.

If you’re 10-26 years old and live near NYC, you can make an appointment at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. We provide free, confidential STI testing & treatment and other comprehensive health services. We can also answer any other questions or concerns you have about your sexual health!

A version of this post was originally published in December, 2017.