Dental Dams Help Spread Intimacy, Not STDs

It’s that time of the year when people focus on intimacy and romance. Most people think jewelry and roses are good gifts to give for Valentine’s Day. They’re nice, but you know what’s even better? Dental dams.

What’s a dental dam, you ask? Like condoms, dental dams are a way to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) by covering the vagina or anus during oral sex. Dental dams are usually made of latex, and some are made from polyurethane. Since they’re used for oral sex, dental dams often come in different flavors, and they’re flexible enough to fit in your purse.

Dental dams are an essential component of protecting your sexual health.

Dental dams are particularly useful for lesbian partners, since oral sex is a common form of sexual activity, but anyone who engages in cunnilingus (the oral stimulation of female genitals) can use them. Dental dams are also beneficial for consenting partners who enjoy anal play (aka “rimming”). Dental dams serve as a barrier against most STDs, since many sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis, human papillomavirus (HPV), and herpes, can be passed simply by skin-to-skin contact. Gonorrhea, chlamydia, and hepatitis A and B viruses can also be spread through oral sex. HIV can be transmitted through oral sex if blood is present.

Unfortunately, dental dams aren’t distributed as widely as condoms are. You’re not likely to find a dental dam dispenser in a public restroom, and many community organizations provide dental dams on a request-only basis because they’re more expensive than condoms. And most drug stores don’t carry dental dams in the same aisle as condoms and lube because dental dams were originally created to be used during dental procedures. (Get it — dental dams.) Continue reading

STD Awareness: Is HPV Now a “Men’s Disease”?

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is most notorious for causing cervical cancer — making it, in many people’s minds, a “women’s disease.” But this gender-blind sexually transmitted virus can cause cancer in any cell it infects, and is associated with cancers of the cervix, anus, vagina, vulva, penis, and mouth and throat — aka oropharyngeal cancer.

While oropharyngeal cancers used to be caused mostly by tobacco, as people quit smoking an increasing proportion is caused by HPV. In the 1980s, only 15 percent of oropharyngeal cancers were caused by HPV, but nowadays the virus is behind 70 percent of them. A 2011 study predicted that the number of HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers will surpass cervical cancers by 2020.

HPV is rapidly gaining prominence among men.

It’s only 2017, but we’re ahead of schedule. Earlier this year, researchers reported that, in the United States, oropharyngeal cancer is more common among men than are cervical cancers among women — and oropharyngeal cancer rates are increasing in the male population, while they are relatively stagnant among women. These rates are projected to continue climbing, which will skew oropharyngeal cancer even more heavily toward the male population. But, in the public’s imagination, HPV is most well-known for its association with cervical cancer — while most people haven’t even heard of oropharyngeal cancer.

Oropharyngeal Cancer and HPV

Oropharyngeal cancer can strike the inside of your mouth and throat. Risk factors include tobacco (including cigarettes, snuff, and chewing tobacco), marijuana use, alcohol, and oral infection with HPV. HPV can be spread by most sexual activities — including vaginal, anal, and oral sex, as well as “French kissing” and rubbing genitals together. There are many strains of HPV, which come in two main categories: low-risk HPV, which can cause genital warts; and high-risk HPV, which can cause cancer. Continue reading

STD Awareness: The Surprising Sexual Transmission of Non-STDs

What is a sexually transmitted disease, or STD? If someone catches their partner’s cold during sex, is that cold an STD? According to the Office on Women’s Health, an STD is “an infection passed from one person to another person through sexual contact.” Unless the cold was passed through sexual contact, rather than mouth-to-mouth contact, it would not be considered an STD. Others say that, for an infection to be considered an STD, its sexual transmission must make it significantly more common in the population. So, a disease like the common cold would probably be just as common even if people never had sex.

MRSA, meningitis, and the virus that causes pinkeye can be transmitted sexually.

However, there are some infections, such as hepatitis C or bacterial vaginosis, whose status as official STDs is controversial. While researchers argue with one another over where to draw the line between an STD and a non-STD, let’s take a look at some bacteria and viruses that can be transmitted sexually, even though they’re not officially categorized as “STDs.”

MRSA: Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus

MRSA bursting out of a dead blood cell. Image: Frank DeLeo, NIAID

MRSA bursting out of a dead blood cell. Image: Frank DeLeo, NIAID

You’ve probably heard of MRSA, which is pronounced “mersa” and stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — a strain of bacteria that is resistant to every antibiotic in the penicillin family, as well as others. S. aureus, or “staph” for short, is the same bacteria responsible for TSS, or toxic shock syndrome, which has most infamously been associated with the use of highly absorbent tampons. But mostly, staph is a common cause of skin infections, which could be deadly in the pre-antibiotic era, but these days usually don’t raise too many eyebrows.

Unfortunately, with the emergence of MRSA, which is difficult to treat with the usual drugs, we might once again have to worry about minor skin infections blossoming into life-threatening conditions. Additionally, MRSA has found a way to hop from person to person via sexual contact, and sexually transmitted MRSA has been documented in both heterosexual and MSM (men who have sex with men) populations. Untreated, it can lead to a form of gangrene in which tissue blackens as it dies. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Sexual Transmission of Zika Virus


Zika virus. Image: Cynthia Goldsmith, CDC

I first heard of Zika virus in an epidemiology class, when another student made on offhand remark: “Did you know Zika virus can be transmitted sexually?” Ever vigilant for material for the STD Awareness column, I excitedly scribbled the name of the virus in my notes. But upon further investigation, I found that there were only a couple of documented cases of the sexual transmission of this virus that no one had heard of, and decided there was no reason to freak people out about yet another potential STD when rates of more common STDs, like chlamydia and gonorrhea, were on the upswing.

A year later, Zika virus was splashed across headlines on a daily basis, mostly for its newfound association with birth defects, but also in light of revelations that it could be transmitted by sex.

Access to condoms and reliable contraception is more vital than ever.

While Zika virus is usually transmitted by mosquito bites, the discovery that it can be sexually transmitted made it the only known virus that could be spread both sexually and by mosquitoes. It’s also the only known mosquito-borne virus that can cross the placenta to harm a fetus. Like several other viruses, including CMV and rubella, Zika is implicated in serious birth defects. But many health authorities worry that its potential as a sexually transmitted pathogen is dangerously underestimated. As of August 31, there have been 23 confirmed sexually transmitted cases of Zika virus in the United States — but sexual transmission will rise as the virus jumps into local mosquitoes, which will also make it difficult or impossible to tell if a sexually active Zika patient got the virus from sex or directly from a mosquito.

Earlier this year, sexually transmitted Zika virus in Texas made headlines, with many journalists incorrectly proclaiming it the first known case of sexual transmission. In fact, Zika’s sexual transmission was first documented in 2008, before “Zika” was a household name and the married couple who published their experience in a scientific paper thought they could share their STD status in relative obscurity. Despite referring to themselves as “Patient 1” and “Patient 3,” a science reporter quickly figured it out and (with their permission) revealed their identities in a 2011 article — still years before Zika-bearing mosquitoes would hit the Americas and trigger a microcephaly epidemic that propelled the virus to infamy. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Are Condoms Really Necessary?

condoms in packetsCondoms are one of the best ways for sexually active people to avoid sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), but many worry that people are becoming more lax about protecting themselves. There are all kinds of myths swirling around about condoms — such as that they aren’t effective or that they kill the mood. And, thanks to anti-HIV medications, some people no longer see condom use as a matter of life or death.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced that 2014 saw record highs in chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea, which is a stark reminder that condoms protect against more than just HIV. So, even if you’re using medications to protect yourself from HIV, remember that syphilis is making a comeback, and can cause serious damage or even death when untreated, and that gonorrhea is rapidly evolving resistance to the last good drugs we have to treat it. Condoms are just as relevant as ever!


In 2014, the CDC announced it would start using the term “condomless sex” instead of “unprotected sex” to recognize that people could engage in condom-free sex, but still protect themselves from HIV by using Truvada, or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). Truvada is the first drug approved by the FDA to prevent HIV, and it can be taken by HIV-negative individuals to help their body ward off the virus before an infection can establish itself. The pill must be taken daily — using it inconsistently reduces its effectiveness. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Can I Use Plastic Wrap as a Dental Dam During Oral Sex?

plastic wrapIf you read this blog — or any sexual health website, really — you’ll probably see dental dams getting a lot of props. A dental dam (not to be confused with a female condom) is a square piece of latex that can cover the vaginal opening or the anus. Anyone wishing to avoid the oral transmission of STDs like herpes, gonorrhea, HPV, syphilis, chlamydia, and intestinal parasites, dental-dam advocates say, should use a latex barrier. Most people, however, have probably never even seen a dental dam, and they are not widely used. Perhaps their unpopularity is related to myths about oral sex being safe sex (it’s not!); perhaps it’s due to dental dams being expensive or difficult to find.

Plastic wrap hasn’t been evaluated by the FDA for STD prevention, and no studies have assessed its effectiveness in reducing disease risk during oral sex.

Some safer-sex aficionados have found ways around that, though. They might cut the tips off of condoms and make incisions along the sides, creating little latex rectangles. An even easier and cheaper option lies in plastic wrap, which many people use as a barrier while performing cunnilingus (oral contact with the female genitalia) or rimming (oral contact with the anus). It is inexpensive, easy to find, odorless, and tasteless, and can be purchased without even a hint of embarrassment (unless perhaps your other purchases include duct tape, cucumbers, and clothes pins). And it can be pulled off the roll in sheets as long as your heart desires!

Planned Parenthood endorses the use of plastic wrap for oral sex when dental dams aren’t available. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and both recommend plastic wrap for use during rimming. Health authorities, such as and the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare, recommend non-microwavable Saran Wrap, because microwave-safe Saran Wrap has tiny pores to let out steam — which might also let viruses and bacteria through. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Ceftriaxone-Resistant Gonorrhea

Nestled in the throat of a Japanese woman was a collection of clones that scientists abducted from their temporary habitat and christened H041 — a humdrum moniker for a strain of bacteria that would burn headlines in medical journals. Though the bacteria never caused symptoms in their host, they lingered in her throat from at least January until April of 2009, when a swab finally tested negative. Rather than succumbing to repeated bombardment by an antibiotic called ceftriaxone, the infection probably just went away on its own — as oral gonorrhea infections tend to do.

Resistance to ceftriaxone, our last good gonorrhea drug, has been reported in Japan, Australia, Sweden, France, and Spain.

The emergence of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is considered one of the most pressing problems in infectious disease — just two years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named it an “urgent threat.” We have one remaining first-line gonorrhea treatment left: extended-spectrum cephalosporins, which include cefixime, which is taken orally, and ceftriaxone, which is administered as a shot. Resistance to cefixime was first documented in 1999, leaving ceftriaxone as our best remaining option, and the CDC’s first choice for treating gonorrhea. There are no good alternatives to ceftriaxone remaining, which is why reports of ceftriaxone-resistant gonorrhea are so deeply troubling.

What made H041 special was that it was the first extensively drug-resistant strain of Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea. With an unusually high level of resistance to ceftriaxone — four to eight times higher than the previous record holder — the strain was also resistant to a slew of other antibiotics: penicillin and its relatives, fluoroquinolones, macrolides, tetracycline, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, chloramphenicol, nitrofurantoin, cefpodoxime, cefixime, ciprofloxacin, and levofloxacin — and had reduced susceptibility to azithromycin to boot.

Another thing that made H041 special — as special as clones can be, anyway — is that it never reappeared. After its discovery, researchers in Kyoto and Osaka intensified their surveillance, trying to uncover it again and track its spread through the population. However, their search for H041 turned up empty handed. But other ceftriaxone-resistant strains have been documented around the world. Continue reading