STD Awareness: COVID-19 and Semen

You might have read the headlines earlier this month that the virus that causes COVID-19 has been found in semen. Is that true — and if it is, does that mean COVID-19 can be transmitted sexually?

The short answers to those questions are yes, and we don’t know yet.


Several viruses that aren’t thought of as sexually transmitted can be found in semen.


JAMA recently published a short article about a small study conducted in China. The authors took semen from 38 people who were either recovered from COVID-19 or still in the throes of infection. Of those 38 people, six were found to have the novel coronavirus hiding out in their semen — adding semen to the list of bodily fluids in which the virus can lurk, including saliva, urine, and feces.

This study is too limited to make sweeping generalizations, but it does seem to show that it’s possible — though perhaps not overwhelmingly likely — for someone suffering from COVID-19 to be none the wiser as the virus wends its way to the body’s southern hemisphere, where it can hang out in the testes. Plus, the virus was detected not just in people with active disease, but also in people who had recovered, raising the possibility that someone can carry the virus below the belt even after symptoms are gone. Continue reading

From HPV to Cancer to Dry Mouth

Despite what a lot of people might think, oral sex is sex — not “third base,” not “everything but” — carrying with it the potential for both pleasure and disease transmission. That includes oral transmission of human papillomavirus (HPV), which can lead to head-and-neck cancer (aka oral cancer, aka oropharyngeal cancer). 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.


A head-and-neck cancer epidemic is striking younger people, spurred by HPV.


Head-and-neck cancer — which can strike anywhere from the lips to the larynx, and up into the sinuses and nasal cavity — is caused by several risk factors, chief among them oral infection with HPV. When HPV causes head-and-neck cancer, it usually occurs at the base of the tongue, at the back of the throat, in the tonsils, or in the soft palate.

HPV can be spread by most sexual activities, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex, as well as by rubbing genitals together. Although HPV is most famously associated with cervical cancer, it’s actually driving more cases of head-and-neck cancer in the United States.

It’s Oral, Head, and Neck Cancer Awareness Week — a time to learn about how head-and-neck cancer has changed over the years, what consequences it can have for survivors, and how it can be prevented in the first place.

A Changing Patient Profile

In 2017, scientists reported that oral HPV infections with cancer-causing strains of the virus are five times more common in men than in women, and that, likewise, HPV-associated head-and-neck cancers are more likely to strike men. That same year, researchers also reported that, in the United States, head-and-neck cancer among men has surpassed cervical cancer among women. As the years pass by, head-and-neck cancer rates are expected to continue to skew even more heavily toward the male population. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Syphilis Treatment Through the Ages

The spiral-shaped bacteria that causes syphilis.

When syphilis first descended upon Europe, questions surrounded this mysterious scourge. Was it a punishment from God? Was it introduced by a hated Other? Was it caused by the stars’ alignment or the presence of “bad air”? We now know that syphilis is not caused by supernatural forces, foreigners, or a harmful atmosphere, but rather by a species of corkscrew-shaped bacteria called Treponema pallidum, which is spread by sexual contact — vaginal, anal, or oral sex — in which one person comes into contact with a syphilis sore.


Thanks to penicillin, we don’t have to go back to the “good old days” of puke chalices, antivenereal underpants, and rat poison.


Before good treatments were developed in the 20th century, syphilis was the most feared STD out there. Its initial symptoms can include a painless sore filled with a highly infectious liquid. As the infection spreads, lesions and rashes might appear on the soles of the feet or the palms of the hand. After these first waves of symptoms, the infection enters a latent phase, which can lull people into a false sense of security, thinking the disease has disappeared. Unfortunately, 15 percent of people with untreated syphilis reach the late stage, which can occur up to 20 years after initial infection, and includes severe damage to the nervous system, brain, heart, or other organs, and can be fatal.

These days, a shot of penicillin is all it takes to cure syphilis. Back in the day, though, there were myriad “treatments” for syphilis — but they were highly toxic and ineffective. Unfortunately, thanks to the latent phase of syphilis, it often seemed like these treatments did work, which probably explains why folks tortured themselves with them for centuries. If only penicillin had been around: Countless people would have been spared the unpleasant — and often fatal — quackery that syphilis attracted. Continue reading

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

Teen Talk: What Is Kissing Disease?

kissing diseaseIf you’re a total dork like me, you might have some plush microbes hanging out on your desk or in your bedroom. The one that represents Epstein-Barr virus is especially adorable (look to your right and try not to coo in delight!). I just want to grab it, cuddle up to it, and fall asleep in its pillowy purple-pink embrace.

In reality, Epstein-Barr virus, or EBV for short, is not the most warm-and-fuzzy microbe of the bunch. I’d way rather have a cold. Why? Because EBV causes mono, which is more whimsically known as the kissing disease. And, despite that cute moniker, kissing disease can be most unpleasant.


Take it from one mono survivor: “Mono stinks!”


First, an explanation of why mono is also called the kissing disease. Merely being in the presence of someone with mono won’t put you at risk, even if you’re both in the same room — you need to be actively swapping spit with them to be exposed to the virus. Kissing is probably the most famous way for two people to exchange saliva, but sharing cups, eating utensils, or toothbrushes can do it, too. After exposure to the virus, symptoms could show up in 4 to 6 weeks.

Second, an explanation of why mono can be so terrible. While not all teenagers and young adults who are infected with EBV will develop symptoms, those who do probably won’t enjoy the experience. Symptoms include extreme fatigue, head and body aches, sore throat, and fever. It’s bad enough to have those symptoms for a few days, but mono might seem to go on and on with no end in sight. Most people are better in 2 to 4 weeks, but even then it could take another few weeks to get back to 100 percent. And some unlucky people can experience these symptoms for six months or even longer! In addition to these nasty symptoms, serious complications are possible. 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: HIV and AIDS

Our immune systems are beautiful things, refined through millions of years of evolution. The immune system’s complexity is testament to the “arms race” that has been taking place between our species and the harmful pathogens that surround us. Last century, a virus called human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) emerged, and it found a weak spot in our immune system’s armor. HIV has been exploiting this weakness ever since, and an HIV infection can eventually progress to a disease called AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome. AIDS is a condition that disables our immune system’s ability to function properly, rendering us vulnerable to a host of opportunistic infections and cancers.


Even if you don’t think you’ve been exposed, HIV testing can be a good idea.


HIV is transmitted via bodily fluids: blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid (which can be present without ejaculation), breast milk, vaginal fluids, and rectal mucus. (It can also be present in bodily fluids like amniotic fluid, cerebrospinal fluid, and synovial fluid, to which health-care workers might be exposed.) The virus is not transmitted by fluids like snot, saliva, sweat, tears, and urine — unless blood is present.

Activities that can bring you into contact with HIV-infected bodily fluids include injection drug use and sexual activities like anal, vaginal, or oral sex. It can also be transmitted to a fetus or baby during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding. In the early days of HIV, many infections occurred as a result of blood transfusions or organ transplants — though nowadays this is a rarity thanks to tissue screening. Lastly, health-care workers might be exposed to HIV through accidents involving needlesticks or cuts. Continue reading