Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) aren’t like Mary Poppins — they can’t appear out of thin air.
But there are a couple ways you can “give” yourself an STI:
- You already have an STI in one part of your body and transfer it from one place to another.
- You use something (e.g., needles, vibrators) that’s carrying infectious pathogens.
Here’s what you need to know.
The leading narrative says that STIs are only spread through genital-to-genital contact.
And while that’s the leading cause of transmission, it isn’t the only cause, says Felice Gersh, MD, author of “PCOS SOS: A Gynecologist’s Lifeline to Naturally Restore Your Rhythms, Hormones, and Happiness.”
“Not all sexually transmitted diseases are transmitted through genital-to-genital contact,” says Gersh.
Some are spread through oral-genital, oral-anal, or genital-to-anal contact.
“In fact, some can be spread without sexual activity ever having taken place,” adds Gersh.
An STI can take root anywhere there are mucous membranes.
This includes the:
Yes. It’s possible to have an STI even if you’ve never:
- kissed another person
- given or received oral
- had penetrative sex of any kind
- participated in any other sexual act
STIs can get passed in nonsexual scenarios. Some ways include:
- from parent to child during childbirth
- from parent to child during chestfeeding
- during a friendly kiss with a person who has a cold sore
- by sharing a sex toy with a person who has an STI
- by sharing a needle with a person who has a blood-borne STI
- via open cuts or sores
No matter your sexual history, the only way to know if you have an STI is to get tested.
Some STIs — such as syphilis, HIV, and hepatitis — are considered full-body pathogens.
These can’t be transferred from one body part to another because they already exist throughout the entire body, explains Gersh.
Other STIs, however, are more site-specific. These include:
“It’s important to note, however, that untreated gonorrhea and chlamydia can spread to the fallopian tubes and uterus and cause pelvic inflammatory disease,” says Gersh.
HSV can also cause full-body, flu-like symptoms, such as fever, fatigue, and swollen glands, explains Sheila Loanzon, MD. Loanzon is a board certified OB-GYN with more than 15 years of patient and personal experience diagnosing herpes and author of “Yes, I Have Herpes.”
Of these, HSV is the infection most easily transferred from one place to another.
For example, Loanzon says, “If someone has genital herpes, touches a lesion, and then immediately touches their eyeball, the herpes infection could be spread to the eye.”
Similarly, if someone has an oral herpes outbreak, touches a lesion, and then immediately masturbates with their hand, they could theoretically pass it to their netherbits.
It’s also possible to spread gonorrhea and chlamydia to other parts of the body.
If you have gonorrhea or chlamydia of the throat and use your saliva to masturbate, the infection can be spread to the genitals.
Similarly, if you have genital gonorrhea and chlamydia, masturbate, and then immediately put your hands in your mouth, the infection could spread to your throat.
One mode of STI transfer that hasn’t been well-studied is genitals to anus or vice versa.
Although Loanzon says she’s never heard of any cases of this, she says it would theoretically be possible for a person with a genital STI to spread the infection to their anus by using the same pleasure product or hand to stimulate each one (without washing it in between).
If you have an STI that can be completely cured, seek treatment as soon as possible.
STIs that can be completely cured include:
- pubic lice
For these STIs, abstain from sex (solo or partnered) until treatment is complete. And make sure to wash all of your pleasure products before use, post-infection.
Note: For STIs like pubic lice and scabies, you may have to take additional precautions, such as changing your sheets and washing your towels.
Of the STIs that can be treated, but not cured — such as HSV, HIV, hepatitis, and HPV — only two can be transferred from place to place: HSV and HPV.
Here’s how to prevent transference:
- Talk to a doctor or other healthcare provider about treatment, and follow their recommendation in full.
- Wash your hands with soap and water after touching the infection site.
- Use a barrier method with all pleasure products.
- Wash pleasure products before and after every single use.
A few things to consider here.
1. What STIs did you each get tested for?
Did you know that most testing centers actually don’t test you for all STIs even if you say, “Test me for everything”?
Similarly, most doctors won’t test a person for HIV unless the doctor knows that the individual falls under what the
- people with penises who have sex with other people with penises
- people having anal or vaginal sex with someone who is HIV-positive
- people who have had sex with more than one person since their last HIV screening
- people who have shared needles or used intravenous drugs
- sex workers
HPV testing also isn’t routinely done. That’s because:
- There’s actually
no way to testa person who has a penis for HPV.
- Current clinical recommendations only suggest that vulva owners get tested for HPV (during a Pap smear)
every 5 years.
The bottom line: While you each may have been negative for the STIs you were tested for, it’s possible that one or more of you are positive for an STI that the doctor failed to check for.
2. What body parts were screened?
Most doctors only test for genital STIs — unless you explicitly ask to be tested for nongenital STIs.
So, for example, while you each may have tested negative for genital gonorrhea, it’s possible that you or your partner had throat gonorrhea, which could then pass to the other person via oral-anal sex, oral-genital sex, or tongue kissing.
3. When did you get tested?
If today you had sex without a barrier with a person who has an STI and subsequently contracted the STI and then got tested tomorrow, that test would be negative.
That’s because when you first contract an STI your body, needs time to recognize it, then produce antibodies to help fight it.
This is known as the incubation period, and it can vary for each STI.
Gersh says that the general recommendation is for folks to get tested 2 weeks after potential exposure and then again 3 months after.
If you or your partner were tested too soon after initial contraction, the results may not be accurate.
“Regular screening is the ultimate defense against transferring an STI from one place to another,” says Loanzon. “If you do test positive for something, you can get proper treatment or take proper precautions.”
According to both Loanzon and Gersh, regular screening means getting tested:
- before every new sexual partner (including your first!)
- after sex without a barrier
- after intravenous drug use
“People are scared to get tested because they’re scared to test positive, but they needn’t be,” says Loanzon. “Plenty of people have had STIs, been treated, and are now STI-free. And plenty of people are living with a noncurable STI and thriving.”
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.