STD Awareness: The Surprising Sexual Transmission of Non-STDs

What is a sexually transmitted disease, or STD? If someone catches their partner’s cold during sex, is that cold an STD? According to the Office on Women’s Health, an STD is “an infection passed from one person to another person through sexual contact.” Unless the cold was passed through sexual contact, rather than mouth-to-mouth contact, it would not be considered an STD. Others say that, for an infection to be considered an STD, its sexual transmission must make it significantly more common in the population. So, a disease like the common cold would probably be just as common even if people never had sex.


MRSA, meningitis, and the virus that causes pinkeye can be transmitted sexually.


However, there are some infections, such as hepatitis C or bacterial vaginosis, whose status as official STDs is controversial. While researchers argue with one another over where to draw the line between an STD and a non-STD, let’s take a look at some bacteria and viruses that can be transmitted sexually, even though they’re not officially categorized as “STDs.”

MRSA: Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus

MRSA bursting out of a dead blood cell. Image: Frank DeLeo, NIAID

MRSA bursting out of a dead blood cell. Image: Frank DeLeo, NIAID

You’ve probably heard of MRSA, which is pronounced “mersa” and stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — a strain of bacteria that is resistant to every antibiotic in the penicillin family, as well as others. S. aureus, or “staph” for short, is the same bacteria responsible for TSS, or toxic shock syndrome, which has most infamously been associated with the use of highly absorbent tampons. But mostly, staph is a common cause of skin infections, which could be deadly in the pre-antibiotic era, but these days usually don’t raise too many eyebrows.

Unfortunately, with the emergence of MRSA, which is difficult to treat with the usual drugs, we might once again have to worry about minor skin infections blossoming into life-threatening conditions. Additionally, MRSA has found a way to hop from person to person via sexual contact, and sexually transmitted MRSA has been documented in both heterosexual and MSM (men who have sex with men) populations. Untreated, it can lead to a form of gangrene in which tissue blackens as it dies. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Why Should You Care About Oral Gonorrhea?

Image: CDC

An illustration of Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea. Image: CDC

When I say “gonorrhea,” you might think of genitals that feel as though they have been set ablaze, or perhaps a viscous fluid oozing from the urethra. But gonococci, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea, can also set up camp in the pharynx after being transmitted into a mouth and down a throat when its new host gave oral sex to its old host. Indeed, performing oral sex on multiple partners has been found to increase risk for an oral gonorrhea infection (more properly called pharyngeal gonorrhea).

If you read our September 2012 article on gonorrhea of the throat, you might remember these fun facts: Oral gonorrhea goes away within three months, even without treatment! Plus, these infections rarely have symptoms. Why, then, should you care about a gonorrhea infection in your throat? You’re not likely to notice it’s there, and it’ll go away on its own anyway.


Many researchers believe that the throat is an incubator for antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea.


Well, aside from the possibility of transmitting a gonorrhea infection from your throat to someone’s genitals, there’s one other thing to care about: the development of antibiotic resistance.

The emergence of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is considered one of the most pressing problems in infectious disease — just two years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named it an “urgent threat,” and indeed, gonorrhea seems to be evolving resistance to drugs at quite a rapid clip. If gonorrhea evolves complete resistance to the drugs we use to cure it, we could find ourselves sent back in time, to the days when gonorrhea was untreatable — and responsible for infertility, blindness, and chronic pain. While scientists figure out how to address this emerging threat, you can do your part by avoiding gonorrhea in the first place — and that includes using condoms and dental dams to prevent oral gonorrhea infections.

So, while it sounds like a blessing that gonorrhea of the throat rarely has symptoms, there’s actually a drawback: An oral gonorrhea infection probably won’t be effectively treated — or even identified in the first place. And these hidden throat infections are likely to be helping to drive the development of antibiotic resistance. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Can Oral Sex Cause Throat Cancer?

mouthLast month, actor Michael Douglas gave a frank interview in which he revealed that human papillomavirus (HPV) caused his throat cancer. And, he continued, he got the virus from performing oral sex — specifically, cunnilingus (oral contact with female genitalia). It’s unusual for celebrities to be open about their STD status — and Douglas’ spokesperson has since backpedaled on his comment — so Douglas is to be commended for bringing light to a taboo and little-understood topic. But there were a few things he got wrong, too.


No matter your gender or sexual orientation, performing unprotected oral sex can increase cancer risk.


HPV is a common virus that can be spread by most sexual activities — including vaginal, anal, and oral sex, as well as rubbing genitals together. There are many strains of HPV, which come in two main categories: low-risk HPV, which can cause genital warts; and high-risk HPV, which can cause cancers of the cervix, anus, vagina, vulva, penis, mouth, and throat. The majority of HPV-related cancers are caused by two strains of HPV: HPV-16 and HPV-18.

The good news is that there is a vaccine that can protect you from infection by HPV-16 and HPV-18. Furthermore, most people clear an HPV infection within two years. HPV-related throat cancer is rare, affecting just 2.6 out of 100,000 people.

Can oral sex really lead to throat cancer?

Unfortunately, it is absolutely true that oral sex can transmit HPV, and a chronic infection can cause cancer. Oral sex is indeed sex. It’s not “third base,” it’s not “almost sex,” it’s plain old, straight-up sex, carrying with it the potential for both pleasure and disease transmission. Unfortunately, because so many of us have a lax attitude toward it, fewer people take precautions when engaging in oral sex, and are less likely to use condoms or dental dams. Combined with low vaccination rates for HPV in the United States, the virus is even easier to acquire than it needs to be. Continue reading

Can Oral Herpes Be Spread to Genitals?

A herpes simplex lesion on the lower lip on the second day after onset. Image: CDC

Herpes simplex virus is mystifying, fascinating, and sneaky. Mystifying because we have yet to unravel all of its secrets; fascinating because when we do uncover one of its mysteries, we are amazed by the capabilities of such a tiny, microscopic object; and sneaky because it enters our bodies by stealth and conceals itself in our cells, taking us by surprise when it comes out of hiding and causes outbreaks of blisters and other lesions.

It can also be confusing. Herpes simplex virus actually comes in two flavors: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 is associated more with oral herpes, which can cause “cold sores,” a type of blister that appears on the lips or face. HSV-2 is associated more with genital herpes, which can cause blisters and other lesions in the genital area. It used to be standard to describe HSV-1 as an “above-the-waist” infection and HSV-2 as a “below-the-belt” infection — but now many researchers are pointing out that it’s more appropriate to say that HSV-1 is both an orally and genitally transmitted infection while HSV-2 is a predominantly genitally transmitted infection. If HSV-1 enters the body in the genital area, it can cause a genital herpes infection — and likewise, if HSV-2 enters the body in the facial area, it can cause an oral herpes infection.


Using condoms and dental dams during oral sex reduces risk of herpes transmission.


What exactly is a cold sore, anyway? A cold sore, also known as a fever blister, is a cluster of blisters that can pop up around the lips or even in the mouth. Sometimes, cold sores are so painful that eating or drinking is difficult, and in extreme cases sufferers must be treated for dehydration. An especially severe infection could also cause high fever or swollen lymph nodes, and in young adults a first oral HSV-1 infection might be misdiagnosed as tonsillitis, possibly leading to unnecessary tonsillectomies. Most symptomatic first-time cold-sore outbreaks occur during childhood, and take about two or three weeks to clear up. Luckily, the first infection is almost always the most severe, and when the infection is reactivated it usually happens without symptoms.

Because both cold sores and genital herpes are caused by herpes simplex viruses, and because oral herpes is so common, many people are concerned that they might be more vulnerable to acquiring a genital herpes infection than they previously thought. They might have a lot of questions, and if they’ve sought answers to those questions, they might have heard a lot of conflicting answers. Let’s see what the scientific literature has to say.

  • Can I get genital herpes if someone with cold sores performs oral sex on me?

Because HSV-1, the virus responsible for most oral herpes infections, can also cause genital herpes, many people wonder if someone with cold sores can transmit the virus to someone else by performing oral sex, resulting in a genital herpes infection. Other people wonder if HSV-1 can be transmitted via oral contact with the anus, resulting in a herpes infection in the rectal area. The answer to these questions is: Yes! Continue reading

STD Awareness: An Update on Antibiotic-Resistant Gonorrhea

Last year, we shared the fascinating and frightening story of the emergence of increasingly antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, an STD caused by the gonococci bacteria. The sexually transmitted scourge, which we only so recently reined in with the development of antibiotics, has been performing some genetic gymnastics to defeat almost every drug we’ve thrown at it. We douse it with certain drugs, and the bacterium literally spits them back out at us, and it inactivates other drugs by snapping the active molecules in half. Sulfa drugs, penicillins, tetracyclines, fluoroquinolones — they all make a gonococcus heave a bored sigh. Luckily, cephalosporins were still an effective treatment, but recently there have been reports of stubborn gonorrhea infections caused by the latest and greatest (and some might say most hated) strain of gonococci.


The bacteria that cause gonorrhea continue to evolve, right under our noses!


Well, the story isn’t over — just like the bacteria that cause gonorrhea, the tale is rapidly evolving. The latest class of antibiotics that the gonococci are chipping away at is the cephalosporin family, which includes several chemically related drugs that work in similar ways — and that can likewise be defeated by microbes in similar ways. Cephalosporin-resistant gonorrhea was first reported in Japan and documented in a few European countries. The Japanese case that inspired the New England Journal of Medicine to declare last year that it was “time to sound the alarm” was an oral gonorrhea infection that was resistant to one member of the cephalosporin family: ceftriaxone.

Earlier this month, the prestigious medical journal JAMA reported the first North American sightings of gonorrhea that failed treatment with another cephalosporin: cefixime. Yeah, I know, you’d rather hear about Big Foot or UFO sightings, not evidence that something as real and unmythical as Gonorrhea 5.0 has landed in your back yard. Luckily, there’s plenty you can do to protect yourself from it, and we’ll tell you all about it toward the end of this article. (Spoiler alert: It involves using condoms!) Continue reading

STD Awareness: Gonorrhea of the Throat

Editor’s note: For more information on oral gonorrhea, please see our post Why Should You Care About Oral Gonorrhea? For more information on whether a gonorrhea infection can go away without treatment, please see our post Will STDs Go Away on Their Own?

Gonococci can band together to attach themselves to a human cell. Image: Dustin Higashi, University of Arizona

My fellow Generation Xers might remember an episode of Chicago Hope in which a very young Jessica Alba portrays a teenage girl with a gonorrhea infection in her throat — also called pharyngeal gonorrhea. The actress later reported being shunned by members of her church, disillusioning her from the religion she grew up with. It is a testament to the power of taboo that even a fictional association with a sexually transmitted disease (STD) can elicit such negative reactions.

Taboos can affect the ways we relate to one another sexually, as well. Many of us conceptualize of disease as “dirty,” and the flip side to that is to think of people without disease as “clean.” This kind of stigmatizing language can be found in phrases like “She looked clean” and “Don’t worry, I’m clean” — all to describe people who are perceived to be or who claim to be free of STDs. With all the baggage we put on STD status, it can be difficult to ask a partner to use a condom or dental dam during oral sex. Some people might think we don’t trust them or are underhandedly questioning their “cleanliness.” These sorts of fears can cloud our judgment when it comes to protecting our health, but there is nothing wrong with asking your partner to use protection during oral sex — especially if you don’t know one another’s STD status. There are many good reasons to use barrier methods when engaging in oral sex, and pharyngeal gonorrhea is just one of them.


Unprotected oral contact with a penis puts you at the most risk of acquiring pharyngeal gonorrhea.


Gonorrhea is most famous as an infection of the cervix or the urethra. But gonococci, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea, can thrive in other warm, moist areas of your body — not just the reproductive tract, but also the mouth, throat, eyes, and anus. Gonococci can be transmitted to your mouth or throat via oral sex — most likely via unprotected oral sex. Symptoms might include a sore throat, but 90 percent of the time there are no symptoms at all. Continue reading