Most people are familiar with the male condom, which can be used during oral-penile sex to protect the giver and receiver from oral and genital STIs, respectively.
But what about women who want to receive oral sex or engage in oral-anal sex? What form of protection can they use to protect themselves and their partners? Enter: the dental dam.
The dental dam, originally developed as a medical device for dentists, has evolved into something that just about everyone should have in their sexual health toolbox. Learn more about this handy tool and how can provide protection from oral HPV.
What Is a Dental Dam?
A dental dam is a sheet of latex. It’s placed on top of the vulva or anus to act as a barrier between partners during oral sex.
Although it’s often marketed as sexual health device for lesbians, it’s a smart choice for anyone who wants to give safe oral sex to someone with a vulva. It’s also for partners who want to enjoy oral-anal sex without the risk of rotavirus, norovirus, and some types of hepatitis.
The dental dam is essentially an oral sex condom. And unlike most other forms of birth control, they don’t necessarily have to be purchased in a store. They can be made from cling wrap or by cutting open an external condom. Any sort of barrier that stops fluids from crossing over will work as a dental dam.
Can You Get HPV from Oral Sex?
Yes, yes, yes. You can 100% get oral HPV from giving oral sex. And, though it has not been well studied, it may be possible for you to get genital HPV from someone who has oral HPV. (1) That’s why it’s so necessary to take steps to protect yourself.
What Does Oral HPV Look Like?
Typical symptoms of oral HPV include: (2)
- A persistent sore throat
- An ulcer or sore that doesn’t heal within a few weeks
- Difficulty or pain while swallowing
- Warts in the mouth or throat
- Discoloration on the soft tissues of the mouth
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Change in voice
- Ear pain (typically in one ear)
- Wheezing or hoarseness
- Constant cough
Oral HPV Testing
Unfortunately, there is no way to test for HPV in the mouth. The only way to see if you have it is by taking a biopsy of warts caused by the virus or by testing precancerous or cancerous lesions. If your oral HPV doesn’t cause any warts or lesions, then you will be unable to test for it.
Oral HPV Treatment
There is no treatment for HPV, but most oral HPV cases go away on their own.
If you have warts in the mouth or throat, they may disappear, stay the same, or increase in size and number. Surgery may be used to remove warts in the throat, but that will not cure the HPV infection. (2) If you have oral warts, it’s highly unlikely that the HPV will develop into cancer.
If you do develop cancer of the mouth or throat, treatment will depend on the stage and location of cancer. The good news is that HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers have better outcomes and fewer relapses after treatment than HPV-negative cancers. Treatment options can include radiation therapy, surgery, chemotherapy, or a combination of the three. (3)
So Will Dental Dams Protect against HPV?
Yes and no.
Dental dams are a barrier, and they do help protect partners from certain STIs. However, it’s important to remember that HPV can spread through skin-to-skin contact. That means that any type of intimate skin touching has the risk of spreading the virus. If you use a dental dam, you’re lowering (but not eliminating) your risk for HPV.
When it comes to sex, there’s no way to get 100% protection against any STI. The only thing you can do is take steps to lower your risk, like using dental dams during oral sex.
Should I use Dental Dams with Oral Sex?
HPV is the only STI known to cause cancer, and that includes mouth and throat cancers. In fact, most of the cancers found in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils, are HPV-related. Additionally, these types of mouth and throat cancers are the most common HPV-related cancers in men. (4) Fortunately, you can reduce your risk of getting mouth and throat cancer by using a dental dam while giving oral sex.
- STD Risk and Oral Sex – CDC Fact Sheet: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016.
- What Does HPV Look Like In Your Mouth: Medical News Daily, 2018.
- Human Papillomavirus (HPV) of the Mouth: What You Should Know: Healthline, 2018.
- HPV and Cancer: American Cancer Society, 2017.