There’s a lot of information and misinformation about how sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can be spread. Can you really get an STI from a toilet seat? What about sharing lip balm or other beauty products? How do you know what the facts are? Always check with your doctor and do your research before engaging in any activity you think might be risky, but let’s look at a few myths and facts about STIs.
How You’re Not Going to Get an STI
“To my knowledge, no one has ever acquired an STD on the toilet seat — unless they were having sex on the toilet seat!” says Abigail Salyers, PhD and president of the American Society for Microbiology.
Most of the bacteria and viruses that cause STIs don’t survive long on surfaces like toilet seats. And most STIs need to come into contact with certain cells in order to cause an infection. They can’t infect skin cells, so if the skin of your legs and buttocks isn’t broken, there’s no reason to expect that you’d be able to pick up an infection simply from sitting on a surface, even if the right bacteria or viruses were there in the right amounts.
Of course, just because you’re not going to pick up an STI from a toilet seat doesn’t mean you should abandon bathroom hygiene. Bacteria like streptococcus and staphylococcus and viruses like the common cold have been found on bathroom surfaces, so keep washing your hands and wiping down surfaces before you touch them.
This is another myth that springs from a misunderstanding of how most viruses and bacteria live and reproduce. Certain bugs like malaria have adapted to spend part of their life cycle in the body of a mosquito, but life there isn’t ideal for most microorganisms. The trace amounts of infectious material that might end up in a mosquito don’t survive long. There are plenty of other reasons to avoid mosquito bites, but a mosquito isn’t going to give you an STI.
Sharing Lip Balm
Lately I’ve seen claims that sharing lip balm carries an STI risk, but this is only partially true. There are two types of herpes, herpes simplex type 1 (oral) and herpes simplex type 2 (genital). It’s important to know that herpes simplex type 1 can cause genital infections and that herpes simplex type 2 can cause oral infections through mouth-to-genital contact, but unless lip balm is being used in the genital area, no one is at risk for a genital infection of herpes from sharing lip balm.
Sharing lip balm, lipstick, or other beauty products still isn’t a good idea. There are many things that can be passed mouth-to-mouth, including oral infections of herpes.
Unusual Ways You Might Catch an STI
Acupuncture is one of the most popular forms of alternative medicine worldwide and is trending in the US, but it needs to be performed carefully to minimize the risk of infection. Remember that your skin is your body’s first defense against bacteria. When the skin is broken by an acupuncturist’s needle, bacteria on the skin are invited into the body, and reused needles can transmit blood borne pathogens.
The area to be treated should be thoroughly disinfected, and disposable needles are the safest option. You should hear the opening of sterile packages before new needles are inserted, and you should see the used needles thrown away after your session. At least five outbreaks of Hepatitis B have been linked to acupuncture therapy.
Razors create small cuts on the surface of the skin and can carry bacteria from one person to another. The risk of getting an STI from sharing a razor is greatest if you’re using the razor to shave your genital area. But the micro-cuts created when you shave any part of your body are enough of an opening for the spread of a blood borne infection like Hepatitis C or even HIV.
Tattoos and Piercings
Most businesses performing piercings and tattoos take their customers’ well-being (and their own reputation) seriously, and when tools are disinfected correctly, the risk of catching something at a tattoo or piercing parlor is very slim.
Most states have oversight and certification programs in place, but there are still tattoo and piercing businesses that run “off the books.” These operations aren’t inspected, and their owners may not even know how to effectively sterilize equipment. Always be aware that because of the invasive nature of tattooing and piercing, you’re putting your health in the hands of whoever’s performing the act. Make sure they’re certified and able to answer questions about how they sterilize their equipment.