Many teens have the notion that oral sex equals safe sex, but that doesn’t add up, said experts at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
It is true that they will not get pregnant, but they are still exposing themselves to sexually transmitted infections, said Dr Mariam Chacko, professor of paediatrics – adolescent and sports medicine at BCM.
Oral sex can expose both men and women to gonorrhoea, syphilis, herpes, human papillomavirus or HPV, and HIV (the human immunodeficiency virus associated with AIDS), said Chacko.
"Adolescents and teenagers need to be aware that there is no such thing as zero risk," said Chacko, who is also medical director of the Baylor Teen Health Clinic. "While many of these infections may be less common in the mouth and throat than in the genitalia, oral sex cannot be considered safe."
Such infections are transmitted orally when the membrane of the lips, mouth and throat comes in contact with the genitalia, she said. Except for HIV, these infections can be transmitted even when there is no cut or sore on the mouth, Chacko said.
Teens who have engaged in oral sex should be aware of the symptoms of sexually transmitted infections in the mouth and throat. Herpes and syphilis will cause a sore on the lip or mouth, Chacko said. This can often be mistaken for a cold sore or even a burn, so patients should be honest with their doctors if they have recently engaged in oral sex.
Unfortunately, infections such as gonorrhoea generally do not cause symptoms. However, in some cases, those infected with gonorrhoea will experience a sore throat or develop pus in the tonsils. HPV may not cause any immediate symptoms, but it can cause warts and cancers of the throat years later.
"There isn’t an immediate negative impact of oral transmission of HPV, but there is a cumulative long-term effect that we do need to make people aware of," Chacko said.
Making teens and their parents aware of the danger is key to preventing sexually transmitted infections, said Dr Peggy Smith, director of the Baylor Teen Health Clinic and professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at BCM.
"Ask your child if he or she has heard about the ways in which kids the same age are being sexually active. It’s a teachable moment to talk about different types of sexual activity and the risks other than having babies," Smith said.
Chacko added that sexual abstinence is strongly encouraged, but those who do practice oral sex should be aware that they can significantly reduce their risk of infection by using condoms or dental dams to prevent direct genital-oral contact.
Teens should also realise that oral sex is still sex.
"There is the concept that not only is oral sex less risky, but it is more socially acceptable in dating and even in nondating situations," said Chacko.
(Source: Baylor College of Medicine: February 2009)