Romance and dating are a big part of the human experience. We love it. We thrive on it. It brings color and flavor to our daily grind, and a jolt of excitement to our work-a-day week. Some of us jump right into physical intimacy with someone we may have just met, and some of us prefer to wait until a relationship has been built and we’re confident this person is going to be part of our life for the long term. Ultimately, sex always becomes part of the picture. Most of us know the basics about staying safe, but did you ever wonder if you could pick up a sexually transmitted disease (STD) by doing things other than actual “sex”?
Not to kill the romantic buzz here, but getting an STD without having sex is very possible. Some STDs are more prone to transmission without having sexual intercourse than others. Here are nine of the most common STDs and their probability of being transmitted without sex. (To keep this short, we won’t go into too much detail about the symptoms and treatments, but you can find more info at your local LGBT community center or look them up on the CDC website.)
Chlamydia is a common STD caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis. It’s most common mode of transmission is through contact with the penis, vagina, mouth, or anus of an infected person. Additionally, it is very possible to get infected with chlamydia through oral sex. It is important to note that penetration or ejaculation does not have to occur for chlamydia to be transmitted or acquired. Don’t panic. Chlamydia is easily curable, but if left undiagnosed and untreated, it can cause serious and permanent damage.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), gonorrhea (also called the clap) is the most common STD in the United States, with 820,000 new infections in the year 2013. It consists of the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Its primary mode of transmission is through direct contact with an infected person, such as contact through vaginal, anal or oral sex. Penetration or ejaculation does not have to occur in order for transmission of the infection to happen. Because it is a bacterial infection, gonorrhea is highly contagious, and simply coming in contact with the bacteria is enough to acquire it. Luckily, gonorrhea is also an easily curable disease.
Of the three most common bacterial sexually transmitted infections, syphilis is the most serious. Syphilis is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum, and can cause long-term complications and potentially cause death if not treated. Syphilis is most contagious during the primary and secondary stage when sores and rashes are apparent.
The most common mode of transmission is through direct contact with a syphilitic sore (chancre, pronounced “shan-ker”). These chancres occur mainly on the external genitals, vagina, anus, or in the rectum. They can also appear on the lips and in the mouth. Engaging in open-mouth kissing, oral, vaginal and anal sex with an infected person can put you at risk of contracting the virus. On average it takes about 21 days to experience symptoms, but symptoms can appear anywhere from 10 to 90 days. Fortunately, syphilis can be treated quite easily with penicillin.
Hepatitis A is a viral disease that is usually acquired when someone uninfected ingests (even in microscopic amounts) fecal matter of a person infected with Hepatitis A. Usually, Hepatitis A is transmitted during contact with a person who has not properly washed their hands after going to the bathroom or changing a diaper. In countries where Hepatitis A is prevalent, eating or drinking Hepatitis A contaminated food or water is another way you can contract the virus. Also, you can get Hepatitis A during certain sexual activities, such as rimming (oral-anal contact) with an infected person. Penetration or ejaculation is not necessary to contract this virus.
Hepatitis B is a contagious liver disease that can range in severity from a mild illness to a serious lifelong illness. This viral disease is transmitted when blood, semen, or other body fluids infected with the Hepatitis virus enters the body of an uninfected person. This is why among adults in the United States, two-thirds of acute Hepatitis B cases are caused through sexual contact, like sexual intercourse or oral sex. Since Hepatitis B is found in the blood, another way you can contract the virus is through the sharing of needles, syringes, drug-injection equipment, through direct contact with the blood or open sores of an infected person, and exposure to blood from needlestick or other sharp instruments infected with the Hepatitis B virus.
There is a vaccine for Hep A and B to help prevent you from contracting these diseases, and sexually active gay men are especially advised to get vaccinated. You can get the shots from your doctor, at your city/county health department, and now even at your local pharmacy.
Another member of the liver disease family is Hepatitis C, which is the most serious of the three. This disease can also range from a mild illness to a lifelong illness that can lead to liver failure, liver cancer, and death. Hepatitis C can be transmitted without having sex because its primary mode of transmission is through blood. Sharing needles, syringes, other equipment to inject drugs, enduring needlestick injuries in health care settings, or being born to a mother who has Hepatitis C are the primary ways of getting infected with Hepatitis C. Although not impossible, it is less common for a person to contract the virus by having sexual contact with a person infected with the Hepatitis C virus.
Herpes 1 is caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV). Oral herpes are usually caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and is considered a highly contagious incurable virus. When it comes to oral herpes, transmission occurs when an uninfected person comes in direct contact with an active or open sore, like through kissing. These sores are often referred to as cold sores or fever blisters, and they occur in the labial and mouth area.
If an infected person with HSV-1 performs oral sex on an uninfected person, chances are that the recipient will contract HSV-1 type genital herpes. The reverse is also true: if an uninfected person performs oral sex on a person infected with genital herpes, chances are that the uninfected performer will be infected with HSV-2 type oral herpes. Penetration or ejaculation is not necessary to contract Herpes 1, and it is possible to contract herpes even when symptoms are not present.
Herpes 2 is usually referred to as genital herpes, which is caused by the herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Genital herpes is transmitted when an uninfected person has sexual contact, such as vaginal or anal contact with an infected person. Penetration or ejaculation does not have to occur because blisters caused by the infection are highly contagious and can be caught simply through direct contact. Moreover, performing oral sex puts you at risk of contracting HSV-2 type oral herpes.
This one probably gets more media attention in our communities, but despite the public awareness, infection rates are still too high. The Human Immunodeficiency Virus can be transmitted through both direct contact with infected blood and through sexual intercourse. Contact with specific body fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk from an HIV-infected person can put you at risk of contracting the virus. In order for transmission to occur, these HIV-infected fluids have to come in contact with a mucous membrane (the mouth, vagina, anus), damaged tissue (like a cut), or be directly injected into the bloodstream (from a needle or syringe). The most common mode of transmission is through unprotected sexual intercourse (vaginal or anal), and while it is technically possible to acquire through oral sex, it is much less common. For HIV testing, HIV RNA test is considered the most effective test by the CDC because it searches for HIV in the blood instead of the antibody to the virus.
As you might have concluded, many of these sexually transmitted diseases are contagious and can be transmitted without sexual intercourse or penetration. If you have had unprotected sex, or have come in direct contact with a person who you suspect might have an STD, it is important to get tested as soon as possible. Some STD testing companies offer test panels that can get you tested for ALL of the most common STDs. If you are only concerned about one particular STD, consider individual STD testing for Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, Syphilis, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, Herpes 1, Herpes 2, or HIV, since they can all lead to serious complications if left untreated.
All of this may seem scary, and you may feel the urge to swear off having sex … forever. But realize that sexuality is an integral part of our humanity. You don’t need to give it up, you just need to be wise, be aware, and be safe.
TONI SIMS is a senior web content writer with STDcheck.com, an online STD testing service. At its core, STDcheck.com is a technology company that has broken the barriers of traditional healthcare. The firm is helping unite the intersection of healthcare and ecommerce, and by doing so, has been able to deliver higher quality of care to health consumers, as well as contributing to the new age of healthcare.