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OBJECTIVE: To review the literature on the role of oral sex in the transmission of viral sexually transmitted infections (STIs). METHOD: A Medline search was performed using the keywords oro-genital sex, and those specific to each infection. Further references from each article identified by Medline were also included, as were relevant references from "Current contents". CONCLUSIONS: Oral sex is a common sexual practice among both heterosexual and homosexual couples. The evidence suggests that HIV transmission can take place through oro-genital sex from penis to mouth and vagina to mouth. Case reports describe apparent transmission from mouth to penis although this appears less likely. The risk of oro-genital transmission of HIV is substantially less than from vaginal and anal intercourse. Receptive oro-genital sex carries a small risk of human papillomavirus infection and possibly hepatitis C, while insertive oro-genital contact is an important risk factor for acquisition of HSV 1. Oro-anal transmission can occur with hepatitis A and B. The transmission of other viruses may occur but is unproved. The relative importance of oral sex as a route for the transmission of viruses is likely to increase as other, higher risk sexual practices are avoided for fear of acquiring HIV infection.