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Oral Sex: What's the Real Risk for HIV?

June 2013

Table of Contents


Introduction

The chances of HIV being passed from one person to another depend on the type of contact. HIV is most easily spread, or transmitted, through unprotected anal sex, unprotected vaginal sex, and sharing injection drug equipment. Unprotected sex means sex in which no condoms or other barriers are used.

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Oral sex has been shown to be less risky than these activities, but it is not risk-free. Oral sex involves contact between the mouth and the genitals. It includes giving or receiving licking, sucking, or biting of the vulva (vagina, clitoris, and labia, or "lips), penis, or anus.

HIV is present in female sexual fluid (vaginal secretions), male sexual fluids ("cum and "pre-cum), and blood. HIV cannot be spread through saliva (spit). It is also possible to get other sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs), such as syphilis, herpes, gonorrhea and human papilloma virus (HPV) through oral sex.


Studies on the Risks of Oral Sex

Even though oral sex is a lower-risk activity for HIV, several reports show that people have become infected with HIV through oral sexual activity. A number of studies have tried to figure out the exact level of risk of oral sex, but it can be difficult to get accurate information. When HIV is spread, it is difficult to tell if it was the oral sex or another, more risky sexual activity that was responsible for spreading HIV since oral sex is not the only sexual activity for most people. Other factors also increase the risk of oral sex, including bad oral hygiene, genital sores, and the presence of other STDs.

The take home message is that oral sex carries a small but real risk.


Tips for Safer Oral Sex

Oral sex is more risky if you or your partner has an untreated STD or bad oral hygiene (bleeding gums, ulcers, gum disease), or take ejaculate (cum) in the mouth. There are things you can do to reduce the risk associated with oral sex:


Taking Care of Yourself

While the risk of becoming infected through unprotected oral sex is lower than that of unprotected anal or vaginal sex, it is not risk-free. If you or your partner is living with HIV (HIV+), you should decide what steps to take to make all types of sex safer (see our safer sex info sheet). Remember that bad oral hygiene and taking cum or menstrual blood in your mouth can make oral sex more risky. If you would like to discuss these issues, see a sex educator or health care provider at your local AIDS service organization or treatment center.




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