13th December, 20218 min read

What risks are involved in different types of sexual activity?

Medical reviewer:Dr Adiele Hoffman
Author:Libby Williams
Last reviewed: 09/12/2021
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.

Feeling unwell?

Try our Smart Symptom Checker, which is trusted by millions.

Overview

There are many different ways you can have sex or be sexually active. As well as being a bonding activity for partners, and something that gives human beings huge amounts of pleasure and fun, each type of sexual activity has a certain level of risk involved, particularly around sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy.

STIs can be passed from person to person during sexual activity through bodily fluids like semen, vaginal fluids and blood, or from skin-to-skin contact with infected areas.

The only way to completely avoid these risks is not to have sex. But, for most people that isn’t realistic, so the good news is there are things you can do to have safer sex, reducing your risk of unplanned pregnancy and getting or passing on STIs.

What are the risks of penetrative sex?

Any form of penetrative sex carries various risks, from contracting an STI to getting pregnant.

Sexually transmitted infections

During unprotected penetrative sex, sex where a penis enters the vagina or anus, there’s a high risk of bodily fluids being passed between you and your partner. This means if you or your partner has an STI, there’s a chance it will be passed on to the other person during sex.

Having anal sex carries a larger risk of getting an STI as the lining of the anus is very thin, making it more vulnerable to damage and infection. Read more about the health risks of anal sex.

Penatrative sex toys can also pass on STIs when not properly cleaned, or when used between partners. Covering them with a condom can help to prevent the spread of STIs.

Using a condom every time you have sex can help protect you from getting or passing on STIs. If you like to use lubricants during sex, you should only use water-based ones as oil-based lubricants can cause condoms to break. Read more about how to use condoms and how to prevent STIs.

STIs that can be spread through vaginal and anal sex include:

Risk of pregnancy

Pregnancy is a risk you must also consider if you have unprotected sex. Contraceptives like the pill, implant, injection and patch can prevent pregnancy but don’t protect you against STIs. Barrier methods such as condoms are the only contraceptives that can reduce your risk of getting or passing on STIs and prevent pregnancy.

What are the risks of oral sex?

Oral sex is when you use your mouth, lips, or tongue to stimulate the genitals of a sexual partner. If you’re giving or receiving oral sex there’s a risk of getting or passing on an STI. The chance of getting or passing on an STI through oral sex is higher if you have sores, cuts or broken skin around your mouth, genitals or anus.
STIs that can be passed on through oral sex are:

You should use a condom or dental dam to prevent getting or passing on STIs during oral sex. A dental dam is a thin square of latex that acts as a barrier between the vulva (the outer part of the female genitals) or anus, and the mouth of you and your partner to help prevent the spread of STIs. You can usually get them at sexual health clinics, contraception clinics, pharmacies and online. You can also make a dental dam out of a condom by rolling it out, cutting off the tip and the ring and cutting down the side to create a rectangle.

Avoid oral sex or kissing your partner if you have a cold sore as you could infect them with the herpes virus. Read more about the infections you can get through oral sex.

What are the risks of fingering?

Fingering is a sexual activity where you or your partner inserts 1 or more fingers into the other's vagina or anus. The risk of getting an STI from fingering is quite low but still possible.

Any cuts or sores on your or your partner's fingers increase the risk of getting or passing on an STI. You can reduce this risk by washing your hands well before and after sex and also in between touching yourself and your partner.

Sex toys

What are the risks of sex toys?

Using sex toys with your partner is a low-risk sexual activity but it’s still possible to get or pass on STIs such as chlamydia, syphilis and herpes when using them.

Make sure you keep any sex toys you’re using clean by washing them between use, especially if you’re sharing them with a partner. Using a condom with penetrative sex toys (toys that go into the vagina or anus) can also help to prevent STIs.

The risk of passing on or getting hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV when using sex toys is higher if you or your partner have any cuts or sores on your genitals.

Read more on how to use sex toys safely.

What are the risks of masturbation and sexting?

Masturbation is completely normal and is considered a low-risk sexual activity as there’s only a small chance of spreading STIs. If you’re masturbating on your own, there’s no risk of getting an STI. If you’re masturbating with your partner (mutual masturbation) and you touch their genitals, you should wash your hands before touching your own genitals, mouth, or eyes to avoid passing on an STI through bodily fluids.

You cannot pass on or get STIs from sexting. But, there are other risks involved. Learn about the risks of sexting.

When to see a doctor

You should see a doctor or go to a sexual health clinic as soon as possible if you or a recent sexual partner has been diagnosed with an STI, you think you might have an STI or if you’re worried after having sex without a condom.

Common symptoms of an STI include:

  • unusual discharge from the vagina, penis or anus
  • unusual vaginal bleeding (between periods or during or after sex)
  • a rash
  • lumps, skin growths, itching, burning, tingling or blisters around the genitals or anus
  • pain when peeing
  • pain in the testicles
  • pain during sex
  • pain in your lower abdomen

You should also see a doctor as soon as you can if you’ve started treatment for an STI but your symptoms aren’t improving or are getting worse.

It’s important to know that not everyone with an STI will have symptoms. This makes it difficult to know for sure if you have an STI without doing any tests. You should get checked if you’ve had unprotected sex with a new partner, you or your sexual partner have had unprotected sex with someone else, or if you're planning to get pregnant and may have been at risk of infection.

Seek urgent medical care if you have any of these symptoms:

  • severe tummy pain, being sick or you have a fever
  • feeling confused, having slurred speech or not making sense, having blue, pale or blotchy skin, lips or tongue, a rash that doesn’t fade when you roll a glass over it, or having difficulty breathing, breathlessness or are breathing very fast
  • you are or think you could be pregnant, you have tummy pain that’s bad or not going away, you feel dizzy or faint, feel or are sick, are suddenly very pale, or have a high temperature
  • you are pregnant and have vaginal bleeding and a positive pregnancy test

If you’re diagnosed with an STI you should tell your sexual partners as soon as possible so they can get checked and have treament if necessary.

There are many myths around sex and STIs, so talk to a doctor or sexual health expert if you’re ever unsure or have any questions.

Your health questions answered

  • Is thrush an STI?

    Thrush is not classed as an STI. It’s a common yeast infection that can affect men and women and is treated with antifungal medicine. You can still have sex while you have thrush but it may be uncomfortable and cause a burning sensation. If you do have sex while you have thrush, your partner may experience some redness and irritation after sex.

  • How do you get rid of an STI?

    Depending on what kind of STI you have, your doctor may prescribe antibiotic or antiviral medication. Antibiotics are used to treat and cure sexually transmitted bacterial and parasitic infections, like gonorrhoea, syphilis, chlamydia and trichomoniasis. Antivirals are used to treat herpes or HIV. They can’t cure STIs, but do lower your risk of passing them onto any sexual partners you have. When it comes to herpes for example, antivirals can help reduce the symptoms and duration of an outbreak, if it’s caught early on.

Key takeaways

  • STIs can be passed from person to person during sexual activity through bodily fluids or from skin-to-skin contact
  • there’s a high risk of getting or passing on an STI if you have unprotected vaginal or anal sex
  • condoms are the only contraceptive that protects you from STIs and prevents pregnancy
  • it’s possible to pass on or get an STI from oral sex
  • the risk of getting an STI from fingering is low but it’s still possible
  • you should always wash sex toys after use or if sharing with a partner to prevent the spread of STIs
  • there’s a small chance of passing on or getting an STI when masturbating if you touch your partner’s genitals and then yours, without washing your hands first
  • you can’t get an STI from sexting but there are other risks involved
  • speak to a doctor if you or a sexual partner have any symptoms of an STI
Was this article helpful?

We include references at the end of every article, so you know where we get our facts. We only ever take evidence from medically-recognised sources, approved by the UK National Health Service's The Information Standard, or certified by Health On the Net (HON). When we talk about popular health trends or claims, we'll always tell you if there's very little or no evidence to back them up. Our medical team also checks our sources, making sure they're appropriate and that we've interpreted the science correctly.

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.