How to Reduce the STI Risks of Cunnilingus

Mouth-to-vulva sex is pretty low risk, but there are ways to ensure it's safe.

Sexually active adults commonly practice oral sex. In fact, more than 85% of sexually active adults aged 18 to 44 years reported having oral sex at least once with a partner of the opposite sex, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC).

Cunnilingus is a form of oral sex in which a person's lips and tongue stimulate their partner's vagina and vulva—especially the clitoris—the vulva's pleasure center. It is considered a low-risk sexual behavior compared with vaginal or anal intercourse, but there is a chance of developing sexually transmitted infections (STI).

STI Risks From Cunnilingus

According to the CDC, anyone exposed to an infected partner can get an STI in the mouth, throat, genitals, or rectum. The risk of getting an STI or spreading one to others through oral sex depends on several things, including the particular STI, the type of sex, and the number of sex acts being performed.

"The partner performing the oral sex is at risk for STIs that can be on the skin or lining of the vagina like herpes simplex virus, human papillomavirus (HPV), or syphilis," said Jeanne Marrazzo, MD, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

In addition, the CDC says that chlamydia and gonorrhea—two STIs that often appear together—may be transmitted during cunnilingus, though more research is needed. The receptive partner can even catch HSV-1 (the usual cause of cold sores) in the genital area because of oral sex, said Dr. Marrazzo.

And human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)? "While there is no data on cunnilingus causing HIV infection," said Dr. Marrazzo, "I don't think anyone is comfortable saying that you can or cannot get it from oral sex."

The CDC warns that giving oral sex on the vagina of a partner with HIV may cause HIV, though the risk of infection is thought to be very low. According to the CDC, there is more to learn about the risk of contracting an STI from giving or receiving cunnilingus. Few studies have looked at the risk of getting an STI from giving oral sex on the vagina or anus, compared to the penis. In addition, most people who have oral sex also have vaginal or anal sex, so pinpointing where the STI would have been picked up is difficult.

Way Condoms Reduce the Risk

Barrier methods, such as condoms or dental dams, are believed to be effective at reducing risk, but some can really cut down on sensation. "Some women prefer to use plastic wrap to cover the area and maintain sensitivity," said Dr. Marrazzo. "In a pinch, some will cut a male condom down the middle to create a sheet of latex."

Poor oral health and sores in the mouth or on the genitals may increase a person's chances of getting HIV or other STIs during oral sex if exposed to an infected partner, according to the CDC. So ensure that your mouth is in good health and avoid oral sex if you have cuts, bleeding gums, or open sores in or around your mouth.

If the receptive partner has genital lesions or otherwise knows they are positive for an STI, avoid oral sex.

Following these tips can reduce the risk of transmitting STIs during cunnilingus, making it safer and more enjoyable.

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