Oral sex is now widely practised, in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships.
For many years, it was regarded as an almost 'unmentionable' activity. But these days, research suggests that most sexually active people go in for it sometimes. Continue reading...
It's been shown that oral sex has certain positive aspects.
However, a lot of people do – quite understandably – worry about whether oral love play could give them any infection – particularly HIV.
What is oral sex?
First, let’s just clarify what we mean by ‘oral sex'. There are several main types.
HIV infection risk
Because of growing concerns about the possibility of HIV transmission through the widespread practice of oral sex, the British Government’s Department of Health set up an expert group to report back on the matter. In broad summary, their main conclusions were:
You can see from the above that there is always some risk of transmission of HIV during oral sex, whatever precautions you take. However, you cannot get infected if your partner does not have the virus.
What other germs could you pick up during oral sex?
As any doctor at a genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic can tell you, it is possible to acquire several forms of sexually transmitted diseases (STD) through oral sex – if the other person if infected.
Gonorrhoea, a common STD, can be transmitted to the throat during oral sex, especially fellatio. Because of this fact, GUM clinics often take 'throat swabs' these days. In the throat, the germ can cause inflammation, formation of pus and sometimes soreness.
But often, it causes no symptoms at all, and the person just 'carries' it.
In 2011, it was estimated that 1.9 per cent of London prostitutes had unsuspected gonorrhoea in their throats. It's likely that they would give the germ to men whom they fellated.
The lesions of syphilis usually appear on the genitals or the anus – and very rarely on the nipple. But they do occasionally appear on the lips, as a result of oral sex.
However, please bear in mind that in the UK syphilis has been a rarity for many years. Nevertheless, there have been one or two small outbreaks among gay males in the early 2000s, notably in Bristol and Brighton. Currently there are a little over 3,000 cases of syphilis a year in the UK.
Chlamydia trachomatis – this little genital bug has become almost epidemic among sexually active young people during the early years of the 21st century.
It's estimated that in some parts of the UK that at least 10 per cent of younger adults have it.
It is sometimes found in swabs taken from the throat, and it is thought that it can be transmitted by oral sex, particularly fellatio. In May 2011, researchers from University College London revealed that 4 per cent of London sex workers had chlamydia in their throats. This finding is of considerable importance, especially as many men go to prostitutes specifically because they want to be fellated.
Also doctors at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospitals found that about 1 per cent of their gay male patients were carrying chlamydia in the throat.
Please note that if chlamydia gets established in the throat, mouth or nose, it could cause various infections, particularly of the eye. In 2010, doctors warned that oral sex could cause a one-sided chlamydial conjunctivitis, which does not clear up on routine treatment with eye drops.
Bacterial infections transferred by oro-anal sex
As we’ve indicated above, contact between the mouth and the anus will probably result in the transfer of ‘bottom germs’ – though these will not necessarily cause disease.
There is evidence that the bowel organisms Salmonella, Shigella and Campylobacter can all be transmitted by oro-anal contact. These can all cause abdominal pain and diarrhoea. Infections with Salmonella and Shigella can occasionally be very serious.
Hepatitis A is a common viral infection that can cause jaundice and abdominal pain. It is not usually life-threatening, although sufferers can feel very ill.
The virus is often found in faeces in high concentrations and will almost inevitably be present on the apparently clean anal skin of infected individuals. It can be transmitted by oro-anal contact.
Several epidemic outbreaks have been reported among gay men, but heterosexual couples practising oro-anal contact are just as likely to be at risk.
Hepatitis B is a viral infection. It is common in hot countries and around the Mediterranean. It used to be rare in the UK, but rates are rising. It is particularly common among people who have had a previous sexually transmitted disease, and among drug users. It can cause a very serious, potentially fatal, liver disease and chronic liver damage. It is most commonly transmitted by inoculation of infected blood, by sharing needles for injection, needlestick injuries and the medical use of infected blood products. Virus particles are found in semen, stool and saliva, as well as blood. There is clear evidence that it can be transmitted through vaginal and anal intercourse, but it is unproven whether it can be transmitted through oral sex. Certainly, there is a theoretical risk of transmission.
Hepatitis C is a viral infection transmitted in a similar way to hepatitis B and often affects drug users. Some people with hepatitis C infection were infected with blood products, such as transfusions, prior to adequate screening procedures in the 1980s. There is limited evidence that hepatitis C may be transmissible through receptive oro-genital contact.
Threadworms, and probably other worms, can be transmitted by oro-anal contact or by fellatio after anal intercourse.
What about herpes?
Herpes simplex virus (HSV) infection is the commonest cause of genital ulceration. There are two types of the virus. Type 1 affects mainly the lip – causing cold sores. Type 2 causes blisters on the genitals.
In the past, it was thought that genital herpes was caused almost exclusively by Type 2, but in recent years it has become clear that many herpes ulcers on the penis or vulva/vagina are actually caused by the Type 1 virus.
Genital herpes is characterised by recurrent bouts of vesicles (small blisters), either on the penis or vulva, or other parts of the female genital tract. These rapidly break down to form small, painful ulcers. The first episode is usually associated with an acute feverish illness, which may be quite severe. It frequently recurs, although recurrent bouts are usually associated with a milder illness.
HSV can also cause pharyngitis, an inflammation of the throat with ulcer formation. HSV is highly infectious and usually sexually transmitted. It is certainly transmitted by penetrative intercourse but there are several reports of transmission through oral sex. Virus particles are shed profusely from ulcers, either oral (including cold sores) or genital, and infection is far more likely when these are present. Transmission is less likely, but not impossible, in the absence of ulcers.
If you have a cold sore on your lip, do not give anyone oral sex – or even kiss them.
What about HPV and the risk of cancer?
In late 2010, I was alarmed when an ENT surgeon showed me the larynx (voicebox) of a man who had had a lot of oral sex partners. The patient was hoarse, and he found it difficult to speak. The area round his vocal cords was virtually 'swamped' by a network of fine, white threads. These, it transpired, were caused by the HPV virus. Fortunately, he did recover.
HPV is carried by many people. There are about 120 different strains of it. Some of them can cause warts, including genital warts. Others can cause cancer – notably cervical cancer.
In the early years of the 21st century, a small number of doctors began to warn that oral sex might perhaps pass on HPV – and this could lead to cancer of the throat and mouth area.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that people who had had more that five 'oral partners' had a ninefold increase in risk of cancer of the tonsils or tongue.
By 2010, it was clear that the incidence of squamous cell cancers of the mouth and throat was rising in Europe and America, though not in all countries of the world. According to the American Association for Cancer Research, more than 50 per cent of all oral cancers are now HPV-related. And there's no question that oral sex has become more common in recent decades.
So far, no one has actually proved that fellatio or cunnilingus could give you mouth or throat cancer. However, in the light of current evidence, it's clear that both men and women should now be trying to follow a policy of 'risk reduction' where oral sex is concerned.
Please note that we are discussing 'risk reduction' and not 'total risk prevention'.
Avoiding oral sex altogether is the only way of preventing infection by the oral route, but because it's an important and enjoyable part of most couples' sexual repertoire, this advice is rather impractical.
Overall, oral sex seems to carry a lower risk of transmitting infections than penetrative vaginal or anal intercourse.
Limiting the number of your sexual partners and not being pressured into 'casual' sex with an unfamiliar partner is an important way of reducing infection risk.
Consider whether your partner may have, or have had, other sexual partners, and what their infection status might be, before putting yourself at any risk by giving them oral sex – or receiving it.
It's perfectly possible to enjoy oral sex using some form of protective barrier. For fellatio, there are a wide variety of flavoured and scented condoms available, ranging from strawberry to curry, and from whisky to lager and lime! For cunnilingus and oro-anal sex, a dental dam – a thin plastic film – can be used.
Remember, condoms can burst and dental dams can slip, so don't think that their use offers absolute protection. These products can be obtained from most pharmacies and many supermarkets and online.
If you are concerned that you have, or might be at risk of having a sexually transmitted disease, it is important to seek medical advice as soon as possible.
Effective treatment is available for most diseases, including HIV. Early treatment is not only important for your own health, but in order to protect your partner from infection.
If you feel you've taken a risk with oral sex, call the nearest large hospital to ask where the genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic is.