Embarrassing. Uncomfortable. Really private. All of those words are a pretty typical way to describe how we feel when we talk about STDs.
It’s not the easiest (and definitely not the sexiest) topic to talk about, but sexually transmitted diseases, more commonly referred to as STDs, are a very important topic when it comes to your oral health. Sure, we’re not your general practitioner, so why is this topic something your dentist is talking about? And why is it important to South Charlotte Dentistry? Well, even though you know your dentist and dental health care team are here for all of your oral health needs, you may not have considered that STDs are an issue you can and should talk to your dentist about.
In fact, your regular dental check-up can screen for symptoms of an STD, symptoms related to STDs, and throat and oral cancers caused by STDs.
Let’s start with the basics: what are STDs and what do they have to do with my mouth?
STDs are sexually transmitted diseases, which means that they are usually, but not always, spread by sexual intercourse. In the past few decades, many medical professionals have transitioned from calling STDs to STIs (sexually transmitted infections). This is because the term “disease” can suggest that there is a clear medical problem with obvious signs or symptoms. The majority of people who contract STIs, in particular, do not have any signs or symptoms, or the signs and symptoms they do have are mild.
It is also worth noting that some of the sexually transmitted viruses are simply that—a virus or bacteria—and do not result in disease. This can include, though not extensively, chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, and human papillomavirus (HPV).
Some STDs include HIV, chlamydia, genital herpes, genital warts, syphilis, and trichomoniasis. Some forms of hepatitis are also considered STDs.
How and where are they contracted?
Areas that are moist and warm are the most susceptible environments to growing yeasts, viruses, and bacteria. It’s because of this that STDs can be contracted from more than just sexual intercourse.
Unsterilized equipment used to give tattoos or piercings, or unsterilized drug needles can transmit blood-borne diseases like HIV or certain strains of hepatitis. Microorganisms that inhabit the skin or mucous membrane areas of the genitals can also transmit STDs. Mothers can transmit STDs to their infant during childbirth or breastfeeding. Sharing food, drink, and cutlery, kissing, blood transfusions, and even cracked, un-moisturized lips can transmit STDs.
STDs can occur in the eyes, the genitals, and the mouth.
Germs that cause STDs can be found in semen, blood, vaginal secretions, and in some cases, saliva. Most STDs are spread by vaginal, anal, or oral sex, but genital herpes and genital warts may be spread through skin contact.
Fun Fact: Does it matter what you call it?
STDs were first called venereal diseases. Since 1988, ASHA has used the term STD, but is transitioning into the more widely used term, STI. However, even STI is not a consensus in the medical and public health world. The medical linguist Janet Byron Anderson, PhD argues for the term “sexually transmissible disease” (STID). Any way you name it, there are no terms that are culturally insensitive, and your medical professionals will know what you’re talking about.
Which STD’s can be passed from oral sex?
Oral sex can transmit STDs from the genitals of the partner whose infected to the other partner in the mouth and throat. Once transmitted by oral sex, there are several STDs that can spread throughout the body of an infected person; it is also possible to have an STD in more than one area at the same time.
STDs passed on from oral sex include:
Using a condom, dental dam, or other barrier methods when having oral sex can actively reduce the risk of giving or receiving an STD.
Some STDs are not transmitted through the mouth, but can still manifest in symptoms or spread into the mouth and throat.
Can my dental health impact my chances of giving or getting an STD through oral sex?
Certain factors such as poor oral health, tooth decay, gum disease, bleeding gums, and oral cancer, and sores in the mouth can increase a person’s chance of contracting an STD.
Myth or fact?
Following oral sexual activity, some people will brush their teeth and use mouthwash to reduce their risk of STD transmission. In reality, doing so can actually make you more susceptible to an STD. Instead, rinse your mouth out with water only, as brushing and flossing can cause irritation. Bleeding gums and small cuts in the mouth can increase your risk of an infection passing from one partner to another.
How do you know if you have an STD in your mouth, and how long can it take to show up?
The truth is that you can have an oral STD and not even know it. The most common symptoms, according to MouthHealthy.org, are:
- Soreness or burning in your throat
- Swollen glands
- White spots in the mouth
- Oral lesions
- Oral blisters
- Oral sores
Unfortunately, symptoms may not appear right away, and STDs share symptoms with nearly everything (e.g. sore throat, cough, fever, enlarged neck, and lymph nodes). Left untreated, your mouth can turn into a breeding ground of sores, lesions, and blisters, leading to some seriously uncomfortable and painful weeks. In particular, gonorrhea can cause a painful burning sensation in the throat, white spots on the tongue, and possibly white, foul-smelling discharge. Syphilis can cause large, contagious sores in the mouth that can spread across your entire body.
HPV, the human papillomavirus is the most common STD in the U.S., with 14 million new cases each year. Some strands affect the mouth and throat, and high-risk strains can result in cancer of the tongue, tonsils, soft palate, and walls of the pharynx. Low-risk strains can cause warts and lesions, with few symptoms, little pain, and are typically non-cancerous. Some mouth warts will be surgically removed if they do not go away on their own.
Herpes simplex virus type 1 is associated with cold sores, mouth lesions, and blisters. They can be very painful, making it difficult to swallow, eat, and even smile. Although they generally heal on their own within 7 to 10 days, they can sometimes cause symptoms of fever and fatigue.
Talking to your dentist about your oral sex habits might seem like it would be awkward, but it’s actually the first step towards diagnosing an oral STD.
How does an STD affect my oral health, beyond the symptoms?
Oral cancers increased by 61% between 2011 and 2015, a statistic not taken lightly with the uptick in new strains of oral cancer caused by HPV, which accounts for about 72% of oropharyngeal cancers. 62% of oropharyngeal cancers are attributed to the HPV-16 and 18 strains.
However, it’s worth noting that with oral HPV, 90% of the cases clear up on their own, without ever developing into cancer.
What can my dentist do about STDs?
First, your dentist can diagnose HIV/AIDS and STDs during a regular dental checkup. For HIV, the most common visible oral signs include oral warts, fever blisters, hairy leukoplakia, or oral thrush. Symptoms like dry mouth can also reflect changes in your immune system. Your dentist can prescribe medicine to reduce the pain of STD symptoms, such as cold sores or mouth blisters.
What tests should people get and when?
There are a number of tests out there to confirm if you have an STD, but there’s no single test for all of them. Most tests require a blood or a urine sample, but there are also oral swabs and rapid at-home HIV tests.
According to the CDC:
- People ages 13-64 should be tested at least once for HIV.
- Sexually active women younger than 25-years-old or women 25-years and older who have multiple or new partners should be tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia each year.
- Pregnant women should all be tested early during their pregnancy for syphilis, HIV, hepatitis B, chlamydia, and gonorrhea.
- Sexually active gay and bisexual men should be tested once a year for syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea.
- People who participate in unsafe sex or share injection drug equipment should be tested for HIV at least once a year.
In general, though, if you are a sexually active adult, you should be tested once every 3 to 12 months depending on your level of sexual activity, partners, and at-risk activity.
Once tested, results typically take 2 to 3 days to get.
What STD can be detected by a swab test?
Did you know that a throat swab (also known as a throat culture) is all it can take to determine a diagnosis for an oral STD? It’s that easy! A swab can be taken on the area where an infection might be present and can determine if a specific virus or bacteria is present. Be open and honest with your doctor about your sexual activity, and ask for a swab test if you suspect an oral STD.
Who should be tested and what’s involved?
Here’s the real scoop.
- People between the ages of 15 and 24 years old acquire half of all new STDs, even though they account for just 25% of the sexually experienced population.
- 1 in 4 teens contracts an STD every year.
- 1 in 4 adolescent females who are sexually active currently have an STD.
- Across the population, STDs among seniors are increasing.
- The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates more than 110 million STIs among men and women account for both new and existing infections.
- The US has the highest rate of STD infection in the industrialized world.
- The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates in a stunning number that there are more than 1 million new STDs acquired each day, globally.
So the reality of STIs/STDs is that they definitely aren’t uncommon and the stigma around them is slowly disappearing. The real problem? According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States:
- Less than half of adults age 18 to 44 have been tested for an STD other than HIV/AIDS.
Everyone is at risk for an STD, and everyone should be getting checked regularly. Moreover, according to the Center for Disease Control:
- Sexually transmitted infections cost the American health care system nearly $16 billion a year in direct medical costs.
Talk to South Charlotte Dentistry!
Here are five final quick tips about STDs and your oral health:
- If you are sexually active, get tested regularly for STDs and HIV. There are free and low-cost options for testing in Charlotte.
- If you think you might have an STD, stop having sex, and visit a clinic to get tested.
- Talk openly with your partner(s) about STDs, and preventative methods.
- Talk openly with your health care providers (including your dentist!) about activities that may be putting you at risk for an STD. They are the best resources for preventative care and treatment.
- Not all STDs are curable, but they are treatable. Your dentist is a vital part of your healthcare team, so don’t hesitate to talk to your dentist to create a total preventative and treatment plan.
Save yourself time and money, and forget about the stigma! Don’t be afraid to talk to your dental and oral health professionals here at South Charlotte Dentistry. Your dentist can truly impact the management of STDs, and early diagnoses can happen during routine dental checkups. Come see us today or give us a call at (704) 759-0908.