Can You Get MRSA During Sex?

Outbreak in Gay Men Highlights the Sexual Risk

Close up of mixed race man washing his hands
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In 2008, the newswires were rife with reports about an outbreak of a new strain of the "flesh-eating" MRSA bacteria among gay and bisexual men in the San Francisco and Boston areas.

Already considered a major public health common, MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is difficult to treat and easily spread in hospitals, affecting nearly one of every 50 people in the U.S.

What made the 2008 outbreak unusual was that many of the reported infections were passed during anal sex. In the San Francisco alone, 588 MRSA infections were confirmed in the Castro District alone, characterized by the formation of abscesses and ulcers on the buttocks, anus, and genitals of the affected men.

MRSA Not Considered Sexually Transmitted

Despite the fact that the route of transmission in the 2008 outbreak was sexual, MRSA is not considered a sexually transmitted disease (STD) per se.

The Staphylococcus bacteria is one that can be easily spread by close physical contact of any sort. Most infections are passed casually from person to person or during a medical procedure. In fact, the sexual transmission of MRSA is relatively rare, even in groups considered to be at high risk.

With that being said, people frequently carry the bacteria on their skin without even knowing it. While most types of Staphylococcus are relatively benign, some like MRSA can spread more readily because there are so few treatments that can stop them.

During sex, MRSA on any part of the body can be spread to the penis and then the rectum or vagina unless good hygiene is adhered to (something that can be easily forgotten in the throes of passion). Multiple partners and unsafe sexual practices can quickly turn a few cases into a community outbreak.

This doesn't only apply to sex but all other types of MRSA transmission. And this, ultimately, is where MRSA differs from STDs.

Unlike MRSA, STDs are transmitted primarily through sex rather than other forms of contact (such as handshaking, kissing, or the sharing of personal care items). Common STDs, such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HIV, all require the exchange of body fluids. Even STDs such as herpes and HPV, which can be spread through other types of skin-to-skin contact, are more readily transmitted during sex.

Reducing the Risk of MRSA

The general rules of personal hygiene prevail when it comes to preventing the MRSA and other types of community-transmitted bacteria:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, especially after going to the bathroom. This will prevent you from moving bacteria from one part of the skin to another.
  • Wash with soap and water after sex as well as other activities in which there was skin-to-skin contact, including sports or dancing.
  • Do not share personal care items such as razors, tweezers, or even towels.
  • Keep cuts, scrapes, and scratches clean, dry, and covered.
  • When at the gym, clean equipment with an antiseptic spray and use a towel whenever seated on a bench or floor mat.

    Sources:

    Antoniou, T. Devlin, R.; Gough, K. et al. "Prevalence of Community-associated Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus Colonization in Men Who Have Sex With Men." Int J STD AIDS. 2009;20(3):180-3. DOI: 10.1258/ijsa.2008.008243.

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "General Information About MRSA in the Community." Atlanta, Georgia; updated March 25, 2016.