Which Sexually Transmitted Infections Spread by Skin Contact?

Most sexually transmitted infections (STIs) spread either by exposure to infected fluids or by direct contact with infected skin. Skin-to-skin STIs are spread from one person to another by skin-to-skin contact and can be transmitted without intercourse.

A few, such as pubic lice, can be spread by even more casual contact. However, STI transmission via clothing or other objects is relatively rare. STIs are also called sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)

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Common STIs Spread by Skin Contact

Transmission via skin-to-skin contact is possible for a number of different infections. The STIs where skin-to-skin contact poses the biggest risk for transmission include the following.

Genital and Oral Herpes

Herpes is an STI that most people fear contracting from skin-to-skin exposure. Contact with these very contagious sores can transmit herpes from person to person.

In fact, most people living with oral herpes acquire the virus in childhood. Casual contact, such as with relatives, can lead to herpes transmission. Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can be either oral or genital. However, HSV-2 is more often found in the genitals.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

Both cancer-causing HPV varieties and the HPV varieties that cause genital warts are easily transmitted through skin contact. Fortunately, vaccines can prevent this.

The most common cancer and wart-causing varieties can be prevented by early vaccination against HPV. However, ideally, vaccination should occur before people become sexually active. That's why initial vaccination is recommended at age 11 or earlier, though it is possible to get it later.

Syphilis

There is a growing concern about this disease spreading through contact with mouth sores during oral sex. Most people think of syphilis as an easily preventable disease. It is and it isn't.

When sores are covered by an external condom, condoms help. However, sores in the mouth and on other skin locations may go unrecognized and untreated. Those sores can still be contagious. That's why testing is still important for key populations.

Molluscum Contagiosum

This skin disease is more often thought of as a disease of childhood than an STI. However, molluscum contagiosum sores can be transmitted during sex as well.

Although generally a painless infection, if the sores break open, they can become infected by other bacteria. Therefore, it's worth talking to a doctor about treatment. You can also cover sores to prevent skin-to-skin contact since treatment can be difficult.

Does Safer Sex Guarantee Safety?

STIs transmitted by skin-to-skin contact may be difficult to entirely prevent by safer sex. That's because barriers do not necessarily cover all potentially infectious skin.

Practicing safer sex reduces the risk of skin-to-skin STI transmission from viruses such as herpes and HPV. The more skin that's covered, the less likely sores are to touch uninfected skin. 

Condoms and other barriers may prevent transmission of STIs such as HIV and hepatitis that spread through bodily fluids. These STIs are spread by exposure to infected secretions such as blood, semen, and vaginal fluids. (Which secretions are infectious varies by disease.) Remember, though, HIV does not spread by casual contact or skin-to-skin contact.​

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital herpes - CDC fact sheet (detailed).

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Syphilis & MSM (men who have sex with men) - CDC fact sheet.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Molluscum contagiosum.

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