Can Fingering Transmit an STI?

People have sexual encounters in many different ways. Sometimes they involve rubbing skin on skin. Sometimes they involve genital-to-genital or mouth-to-genital contact. At other times, people will use their fingers and hands to stimulate their partner's genitals. This is known as fingering.

Fingering, also known as digital vaginal penetration, manual penetration, or heavy petting, can be an enjoyable sexual activity on its own. It can also be part of foreplay.

Many people assume that fingering is a very safe form of sex, and they're mostly right. However, research suggests that you can acquire certain sexually transmitted infections (STIs) from fingering. This article explores what the risks are and what you can do to avoid them.

Safe Sex Practices: Fingering

Verywell / Laura Porter

Risks of STI From Fingering

There is very little research looking at whether fingering is an actual risk factor for transmitting STIs. This is because few people limit themselves to only fingering during sex. (You may be more used to hearing the term STDs, or "sexually transmitted diseases." However, referring to infections is a more general term that covers asymptomatic cases that also need attention.)

Research over the years has confirmed that STIs like syphilis can be found on the hands and under the fingernails of people with an STI. This suggests that a person can transmit certain STIs from their hands to the genitals of a partner. It is a reasonable assumption given that STIs can be transmitted through shared sex toys.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

Among the STIs often linked to fingering is human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is extremely common and can be passed through skin-to-skin contact. In fact, most sexually active people will acquire HPV at some point in their lives.

Several studies have confirmed that the virus can be found under the fingernails of people living with genital HPV. This suggests that people can, in fact, transmit or acquire HPV from fingering. But how high is the actual risk?

The current research suggests that it is relatively low. A 2019 study from McGill University, which focused solely on the risk of HPV from fingering, recruited over 250 heterosexual couples who agreed to have their hands and genitals swabbed every few months. The HPV samples from the swabs were then genetically "typed," allowing the researchers to determine the route of transmission from one partner to the next.

Based on the findings, the researchers concluded that the risk of acquiring HPV from fingering was possible but "unlikely." In the end, the amount of HPV on fingers was only a fraction of what was found in the genitals and generally not enough to establish an infection.

Other STIs

Other studies suggest that it may be possible to transmit STIs like gonorrhea through fingering. This infection is transmitted mainly through sexual contact and can occur with or without ejaculation.

Studies involving men who have sex with men (MSM) suggest that gonorrhea can be passed to the anus and rectum through fingering. Even so, the risk is linked more to group sex, particularly when drugs and anonymous partners are involved. Outside of group sex, a gonorrhea infection is less likely to occur.

Similarly, the risk of transmitting HIV through fingering is considered low to unlikely.

The one STI that can possibly be passed by hands is herpes. With that said, it is more likely when you touch an open sore rather than unbroken skin. While the herpes virus can be "shed" from unbroken skin, the skin would need to come into direct contact with mucosal tissues of the mouth, anus, or genitals.

Recap

Research suggests that it is unlikely to pass HPV through fingering. While it is possible to transmit gonorrhea from the fingers to the anus, it is not common among intimate partners. The one STI that can possibly be passed is herpes if an open sore is touched.

Reducing the Risk

People of all sexual orientations may engage in fingering. If you intend to practice vaginal or anal fingering, there are ways to make it safer. You can wear gloves or finger cots, making sure to change them when needed to avoid spreading body fluids.

You should also wash your hands between touching your own genitals and your partner's. It also reduces the risk of self-inoculation, such as passing herpes from your own mouth to your own genitals or vice versa.

If you have long nails, you can pad them with cotton before putting on gloves to provide support and prevent punctures. Or you may want to keep your nails trimmed and filed to prevent scratching your partner's genitals.

Recap

You make fingering safer by using gloves or finger cots. Be sure to change them when needed and to wash your hands between touching your genitals and your partner's genitals.

Summary

It is possible to pass certain STIs like HPV, gonorrhea, and herpes through fingering. Even so, most studies suggest that the risk is low to unlikely.

With that said, the risk is not zero. To be safe, you can use gloves or finger cots and wash your hands between touching yourself and touching your partner.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can I get herpes by touching my partner while they are having an outbreak?

    It's possible you could acquire genital herpes by touching an open sore on your partner and then touching yourself. To be on the safer side, do not have skin-to-skin contact while their disease is active. Because the herpes simplex virus can be shed when there are no sores, always use an external condom (also known as a "male" condom) when having sex between outbreaks.

  • Can I get HPV if my sexual partner has warts on their fingers?

    No, not even if they touch you directly. The type of herpes virus that causes warts on the skin is not the same as the type that causes genital warts.

  • Can you get an STI from a hand job?

    Certain infections can be transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, including herpes and molluscum contagiosum. Others are either unlikely to spread in that way, such as HIV, or impossible—for example, chlamydia and gonorrhea.

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