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5th March, 20215 min read

Can you get an STI without having sex? STI myths and facts

Medical reviewer:Dr Adiele Hoffman
Author:Claire Fielden
Last reviewed: 03/03/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

You probably know that if you have unprotected sex, you can run the risk of getting – or passing on – a sexually transmitted infection (STI). But you may be wondering if it’s also possible to get an STI when you haven’t had penetrative sex.

Well, the short answer is yes – but it depends what you’ve been doing. Read on to sort the myths from the facts about STIs, so you can protect yourself and other people.

Can you get an STI without having sex?

STIs are mainly passed from person to person through sexual contact. But it’s important to know that it isn’t just penetrative sex, such as vaginal or anal sex, that can spread an infection.

Some STIs can also be spread through:

  • kissing or close body contact
  • contaminated medical instruments (including sharing needles for drugs)
  • pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding (from mother to child)

Can you get an STI from oral sex?

Yes: oral sex – when you use your mouth or tongue on your partner’s genitals – is one of the most common ways STIs are passed on. The more partners you have, the higher your risk of infection.

STIs that are often spread through oral sex include:

Some other STIs can also be passed on by oral sex, but it’s not as likely. These include:

Can lesbians get STIs?

Yes – STIs can be passed between people with vaginas who have sex.

If you’re having oral sex or rubbing against or touching each other’s genitals, you may be exchanging bodily fluids. You can be at risk of spreading STIs, including:

Can you get an STI from kissing?

Yes. STIs that can be spread through kissing include the herpes simplex virus – this virus causes both cold sores and genital herpes. You can get infected by kissing someone who has a cold sore, or who is infected with the herpes simplex virus. Where you develop symptoms will depend on where you are infected. If you kiss someone with a cold sore on the lips, you may develop a cold sore on your lips.

There are also other infections which can be spread through kissing, including the cytomegalovirus herpes virus, Epstein-Barr virus (which causes glandular fever or infectious mononucleosis) and viruses which cause cold and flu-like illnesses.

Can you get an STI from masturbating?

Yes – but only if you’re not alone. If you touch someone else’s genitals and then touch your own there’s a risk, because STIs can be passed on through infected semen or vaginal fluid. This also applies if you share sex toys with someone else.

If you’re masturbating alone, with clean hands or sex toys, you won’t have a problem.

Can you get an STI from a tattoo or piercing?

Yes. Some STIs can be passed on through blood (blood-borne), including HIV and hepatitis B and C.

This means it’s possible to get these STIs by having a tattoo, body piercing or medical or dental treatment in an unhygienic environment with unsterilised equipment.

Can you get an STI from sharing toothbrushes?

Yes. It’s possible to get blood-borne STIs, such as hepatitis B and C and HIV, by using any equipment that may have infected blood on it. This can include toothbrushes as well as needles and razors.

Can you get an STI while on your period?

Yes. People who have periods (menstruate) are actually at higher risk of STIs during their period. This is because blood-borne viruses such as hepatitis and HIV can also spread through period blood.

Can you get an STI from a toilet seat?

It’s very unlikely.

Bacteria and most viruses can’t live long once they’re outside the body, so it’s extremely unlikely that you’d get a viral or bacterial STI from a toilet seat.

The only type of STI that could realistically be spread by a toilet seat are those caused by parasites, such as pubic lice and trichomoniasis. Even then, toilet seats don’t create ideal conditions for parasites, plus, your genitals would have to come into direct contact with them – so it’ll probably never happen.

STI prevention

Having unprotected sexual contact with another person increases your risk of getting an STI, and the more partners you have, the higher your risk.

It’s important to bear in mind that you can’t always tell if someone has an STI. Many STIs have no symptoms, so it’s easy to pass them on without realising, especially if you’re not being regularly tested.

Using a barrier method of contraception – such as a condom during penetrative sex or a dental dam during oral sex – will help protect you and your partner against STIs during sexual contact.

Key points

  • you don’t have to have penetrative sex to get a sexually transmitted infection (STI)
  • you can pick up some STIs through oral sex, kissing and mutual masturbation
  • lesbians are also at risk of STIs
  • you can get some STIs from infected blood, including by sharing needles
  • it’s very unlikely that you’d get an STI from a toilet seat
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