On this page

    Oral Sex & HPV

    On this page

      Pack of condoms

      Oral sex is a normal part of a sexual relationship. Lots of people find it a fun and intimate way to bond with their partner and give them pleasure. For straight couples, it also has the added benefit that there’s no risk of unwanted pregnancy.

      One thing to bear in mind is that there tends to be an illusion of safety around oral sex. It’s sometimes seen as a completely risk-free alternative to vaginal or anal sex. But the truth is, oral sex is associated with a few different STIs, including HPV. This is a viral infection which is usually symptomless but can sometimes cause cancer.

      Which STIs can you get through oral sex?

      Using your tongue to stimulate your partner’s genitals can put you at risk of a few different infections. The STIs that are most commonly transmitted during oral sex are: 

      Others that are less common include chlamydia, HIV, pubic lice and hepatitis. As we’ve seen, oral sex can also expose you to HPV.

      How do you know if you have HPV in your mouth?

      HPV is largely symptomless, so you might not know you have it. HPV in the mouth is also not something that is widely tested for.

      Mouth HPV, if it doesn’t clear up on its own, can cause cell changes which can cause head and neck cancers (mouth, throat, lip, tongue, voice box). If you’re worried about mouth and throat cancer, symptoms to look out for include: 

      • Red or red and white patches on your tongue or the sides of your mouth 
      • Ulcers that don’t heal after three weeks 
      • Swelling in your mouth that hasn’t gone after three weeks 
      • Discomfort/pain when swallowing 

      What risks are associated with HPV?

      The label “HPV” actually refers to a whole family of viruses containing more than 100 different types. It’s a really widespread virus, which means that about 8 in 10 people will have it during their life.

      Usually the virus is harmless. It doesn’t cause symptoms, so it’s unlikely that you’ll even know if you’ve had it. According to the NHS, most cases of HPV will be cleared by your body within a couple of years.

      However, some types are associated with the following risks: 

      Genital warts

      Some strains of HPV cause genital warts. This is a condition where painless, fleshy growths develop on and around the genitals and anus. Genital warts can be treated, but the symptoms can come back again. Over time, though, your body should fight and clear the virus.

      Cancer

      Types of HPV that can cause cancer are known as “high-risk”. Even if you’re exposed to this type of HPV, it doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get cancer – it just means your risk is increased.

      What types of cancer can be caused by HPV?

      High-risk types of HPV can cause cancer of the:  

      • Cervix 
      • Anus 
      • Penis 
      • Vulva 
      • Vagina 
      • Head and neck e.g. the mouth, lips, throat and voice box 

      Cervical cancer is the cancer most commonly associated with HPV. However, this is relatively uncommon – it’s only the 14th most common type of cancer in women. The other types of cancer listed above are even less common.

      What increases my risk of cancer from HPV?

      You’re more likely to be at risk of cancer from HPV if you smoke. This is because smoking damages cells in the skin, which prevents the body clearing the virus. In smokers, high-risk types of HPV are more likely to persist and cause problems.

      Another risk factor may be number of sexual partners. This recent study published in the journal CANCER showed that having a higher number of oral sex partners can increase your risk of oropharyngeal cancer. This is cancer that affects the area of the throat at the back of the mouth.

      Considering a HPV vaccine?

      Request vaccine


      How can I reduce my risk of HPV?

      HPV can be spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact, and vaginal, anal and oral sex. It can also be spread by sharing sex toys. In short, it’s not always easy to avoid passing HPV on, or catching it from someone else.

      Whenever possible, try to use barrier protection when you’re having oral sex. You can also reduce your risk by getting the HPV vaccine.

      The HPV vaccine is routinely given to school children in the UK. It’s also free on the NHS to people under 25 who missed out on the vaccine at school. You’ll also be eligible for a free HPV vaccine if you’re a trans man or a trans woman, or a man who has sex with other men.

      People who aren’t eligible for a free vaccine can order one through our HPV vaccination clinic

      How can I have safe oral sex?

      The main way to make oral sex safer is to use barrier protection. For oral sex on someone with a penis, use a condom. For oral sex on someone with a vagina, use a dental dam – this is a thin, soft square of latex or plastic that you can put over the genitals when you’re having oral sex. Dental dams can also be used on the anus. 

      If you notice any rashes, sore, growths or unusual discharge in yourself or your partner, it’s best to avoid oral sex and speak to a doctor. You should also avoid brushing your teeth or flossing before oral sex – this can open up small tears in the mouth, making infection more likely .

      Get tested for STIs with LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor

      If you think you might have been exposed to an STI, it’s a good idea to get tested. This is the case even if you aren’t having any symptoms. 

      You can get tested for free on the NHS, or you can order a home test kit from a trusted service like LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor. Visit our STI testing clinic to browse our test kits and learn more about how they work.

      References 

      https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/sexual-health/what-infections-can-i-catch-through-oral-sex/
      https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/causes-of-cancer/infections-eg-hpv-and-cancer/does-hpv-cause-cancer
      https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/human-papilloma-virus-hpv/
      https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/genital-warts/
      https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sexual-health/can-oral-sex-give-you-cancer/
      https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/mouth-cancer
      https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaccinations/hpv-human-papillomavirus-vaccine/
      https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/sexual-health/what-is-oral-sex/
      https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33426652/

      Authors and editors

      Close
      LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor

      This service operates in the United Kingdom only

      Close
      LloydsPharmacy Online Doctor

      This service operates in the United Kingdom only

      Visit IE Online Doctor Continue with UK service