Can You Get STI Without Having Sex?

Many people don’t realise that STIs can be passed on without sex, from things like your grandma kissing you on the lips (herpes) to foreplay that doesn’t involve penetration (chlamydia, gonorrhoea and herpes). And some infections, such as syphilis, can cause serious long-term health problems if left untreated.

It might be awkward to start the conversation, but having an open and honest discussion about sexual health is a good way to protect yourself and your partners.

What are STIs?

The terms STI and STD are often used interchangeably, but they’re different: STDs are diseases, while STIs are infections. The difference is important because diseases have symptoms and can cause long-term health problems, while infections may not.

STIs get into your body when bacteria, viruses or parasites infiltrate cells and start growing. Then your immune system fights them, and if the infection is strong enough, it can become a disease. Infections that develop into diseases have the potential to be passed on to your sexual partner and others.

Most STIs are spread through some type of bodily fluid exchange, usually during oral, vaginal or anal sex. But STIs can also be spread by skin-to-skin contact, sharing sheets or clothing that has touched the genital area and even through non-sexual activities like shaking hands.

STIs can be caused by a variety of organisms, including bacteria (gonorrhea and syphilis), parasites (trichomonas, herpes and genital warts) and viruses (herpes, HPV and HIV). Some STIs can be cured with antibiotics (gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis), and others, such as herpes and HIV, cannot be cured, but symptoms can be reduced with prescription meds.

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How do STIs get into your body?

STIs develop when bacteria, viruses or parasites infect your body’s tissues. They usually get into your body from bodily fluids (like blood, semen, vaginal and oral fluids) during sexual contact with an infected person, but some STIs can also spread through nonsexual touch, like during pregnancy or childbirth. STIs can cause different symptoms, but some don’t have any symptoms at all. STIs can even pass from mothers to their babies during birth or when they’re using the bathroom after giving birth.

Getting STIs is dangerous because they can make it hard to become pregnant and lead to serious health problems, including HIV infection. You can reduce your risk by asking all new sex partners for proof of protection, using condoms during sexual activity, and getting tested for STIs regularly. If you’re already infected, treatment can help prevent complications and protect your partner.

You don’t have to “go all the way” during sex to get an STD, but it does help to have vaginal and anal sex. Some STIs, like chlamydia and gonorrhea, can be spread in this way. But you can also get STIs from nonsexual contact, like sharing a toothbrush or razor, or by having contaminated body piercings or tattoos. Some STIs, such as herpes and HIV, can also be spread by skin-to-skin contact. You may not know you have an STI if you don’t have any symptoms, like itching and discharge around the genitals for women or pain during urination and a sore throat in men.

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What are the symptoms of STIs?

STIs spread through saliva, the lubricating fluids that a woman produces during sexual activity and pre-ejaculate and ejaculate from a man. These fluids may come into contact with other parts of the body during oral sex or when sharing lip balm or mouthwash, and can lead to herpes, genital warts, chlamydia, and other infections. They can also be spread by vaginal, cervical or anal discharge and from skin-to-skin contact during intercourse, including a woman’s period.

Symptoms vary depending on the STI and can appear on any part of the body, but they usually show up in or near the reproductive organs, says Dr. Aagaard. They can include painful sex, vaginal or pelvic bleeding, abdominal pain, or itching or tingling around the genital area. They can also be seen on the lips (herpes), in the eyes (ocular herpes), or joints, as with gonorrhea and syphilis.

Most STIs can be treated with antibiotics, but some, like HIV, require lifelong treatment. You can reduce your risk of getting a STI by using condoms when having sex, not sharing oral or anal sex with unprotected partners, and not going to sleep with anyone until you’ve had a full physical exam and been tested for STIs. If you get a positive test result, you must tell your partner(s) right away so they can be tested and treated too.

How can I prevent STIs?

There is no sure way to prevent STIs, but using condoms every time you have sex can reduce your risk. Always use the right kind of condom for your partner, and change them frequently. If you’re concerned about having an STI, talk to your sexual health provider about getting tested. You can also ask about getting vaccines for hepatitis B and HPV, which can help reduce your chance of infection.

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If you think you have an STI, a doctor or health care provider can diagnose it by asking you questions about your sexual history and doing a physical exam. They may also take a sample of your vagina or penis, a urine test, or blood to check for the presence of an infection.

Some STIs can cause serious problems, like pelvic inflammatory disease or infertility for women, and even ectopic pregnancy (which can lead to fetal and maternal death) for women who are pregnant. If you are concerned, get a rapid test at a sexual health clinic and see your doctor or healthcare provider as soon as possible.

STIs can be spread through kissing, sharing lip balm or silverware, and even by breathing in pollen. Young people, particularly teenagers, have higher rates of STIs than any other age group because they tend to have more unprotected sex and are less likely to use barrier methods for protection.

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