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Are condoms really necessary for oral sex?

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Heather asks:

You say that condoms/protection needs to be used even during oral sex because of the risk of STDs. Do me and my partner still need to worry about this if neither of us has touched someone else sexually before?

Sarah replies:

Not having sexual contact with anyone in the past does decrease your risk of STI transmission, however it does not totally negate the risk. First of all, some STIs can be transmitted via non-sexual means. One example that works really well when we're talking about oral sex is herpes. As is noted in one of the other articles on this site, "Around 50 - 80% of the adult population has oral herpes, which most people contracted through casual contact in childhood." Oral herpes can be contracted via kissing or sharing drinks, etc. Either of you could easily have contracted oral herpes even if you have not been sexually active in the past. Herpes can be spread to any other part of the body. So in other words, if you have oral herpes and you preform unprotected oral sex on your partner, then can develop herpes on their genitals. Also, people tend to define "not sexually active" or "virginity" in very different ways. So it's hard to tell when somebody tells us they have not been sexually active what they actually mean. And finally (as much as we may not wish to consider this possibility), we may not always know if a partner is being 100% honest with us. Sometimes people can be very afraid to disclose about past risks they've had. Sometimes they keep the information secret deliberately (like lying to get a partner to forgo safer sex practices) or sometimes they may be worried about a partner ridiculing them or leaving them because of their past.

Because of these issues, it's really unwise to skip on safer sex practices. We're talking about your health and the health of your partner here, which are a pretty big deal. Does using condoms or dental dams necessarily provide 100% protection from all STIs? No, but it certainly reduces your risk further in very real ways.

So in the end, it comes down to a couple of things here. First off, what level of risk are you comfortable with? Obviously, it is your choice what practices to use. In terms of ensuring everyone's continuing health, using barrier methods is the best way to significantly reduce your risk. Secondly, have you both been tested and do you continue to get tested regularly? Yes, not having engaged in any sexual activity in the past does mean you have a reduced risk of STIs, but it does not negate them completely nor does it mean that you don't need regular sexual health care. We always advise people to have two full STI screenings over a six-month period while being completely monogamous and using barrier methods (and making sure that you share your results with your partner and actually see their results) before assuming that you are clear of STIs. All partners should also continue to get tested at least annually. This obviously does not completely negate any risk of either of you getting an STI. You could still pick up something like herpes via casual contact (like sharing drinks, etc.) from others at any point or you could develop an infection (like yeast infections or bacterial infections which can pop up on their own). However, it does reduce your risk and if you and your partner are comfortable with that level of risk, you could choose to forgo barriers for things like oral sex.

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Information on this site is provided for educational purposes. It is not meant to and cannot substitute for advice or care provided by an in-person medical professional. The information contained herein is not meant to be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, or for prescribing any medication. You should always consult your own healthcare provider if you have a health problem or medical condition.