Safe Sex During COVID
Revised December 2022
Can COVID-19 be spread through sex?It’s a good question—and an important one.
The COVID-19 pandemic is now in its fourth year. Since the beginning, scientists have been carefully studying the coronavirus, its transmission, and its long-term effects. They have been keeping up with numerous variants. And while great progress has been made, there’s still more to learn.
The effect of COVID-19 on sexuality has been one intense area of study. Scientists have investigated whether the virus can be transmitted during sexual activity. And the answer is yes.
How might COVID be transmitted through sex?
COVID-19 isn’t typically considered a sexually transmitted infection (STI), but the virus can still be passed during sex:
Respiratory droplets. The COVID-19 virus is spread through respiratory droplets. When a person exhales, tiny droplets containing water and other particles are expelled into the air. Even more droplets are released during talking, coughing, and sneezing. These droplets can contain the virus.
This means that sex, with its close contact and heavy breathing, can be risky. Droplets containing the virus can be inhaled by a partner, landing in their mouth or nose. If the virus gets mixed with saliva, it can be spread during kissing, too.
Touching surfaces. The droplets don’t just linger in the air. Droplets, along with the virus, can land on surfaces like clothes, skin, bed sheets, and sex toys. If a person touches these surfaces, then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth, it’s possible to get the virus.
Bodily fluids. The coronavirus can be spread through contact with feces, researchers say. So if sexual activity includes anal intercourse or any other fecal contact, there is a risk of transmission.
What about semen and vaginal fluids? Currently, scientists don’t think the virus is likely to spread through contact with these fluids, but it’s still possible.
“The detection of [the virus that causes COVID-19] in urine and semen is very rare; however, a possible risk of transmission through these bodily fluids has not yet been ruled out,” wrote the authors of an April 2022 study in Nature Reviews Urology.
Reducing COVID-19 risk during sex
Experts recommend following COVID-19 guidelines during intimacy.
Get vaccinated. COVID-19 vaccines and boosters are now widely available at clinics and pharmacies around the country. Vaccines reduce a person’s risk of getting COVID-19 in the first place, and if an infection does occur, vaccines lower the chances of serious illness or hospitalization. Sex partners should be vaccinated as well.
Wear masks during sex. It may not sound romantic, but wearing masks during sex can reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
Don’t have sex if either partner has COVID-19 symptoms or has been exposed. It may be common sense to avoid sex if one partner is coughing or sneezing. But it’s important to remember that people can have COVID-19 without symptoms. (This is called being asymptomatic.) So a person can pass the virus to another even if they’re feeling well.
Test regularly. Before sex, get tested for COVID-19 at a clinic or with a home test. Be aware that a negative result doesn’t always mean a person is free of the virus. Some kits require a second test (usually within 24 to 48 hours) to confirm a negative result. Also remember that if a person tested negative for COVID-19 last week, they still could have picked up the infection since then and would need testing again.
In addition to COVID-specific guidelines, these safe sex practices are always a good idea:
Know a partner’s status. It’s critical to know whether a partner has a history of STIs or might have one at the time of a sexual encounter. People should also disclose if they have been exposed to COVID-19 (or if they think they have). Testing for both STIs and COVID-19 are effective ways to find out.
Always use a condom or dental dam during sex. That means every time. With every sex act. Not just every sexual encounter. So if couples have vaginal sex and oral sex in the same night, they need fresh protection for each event. What’s a dental dam? It’s a small layer of latex or polyurethane that serves as a barrier for oral sex. When properly placed over a person’s genitals or anus, it can protect both partners from infections. Dental dams are sold online or in drugstores. It’s also easy to make one: Snip the top and bottom off a condom with scissors and cut the condom lengthwise.
Limit the number of sexual partners. Casual sex and hookups can be risky, especially when partners don’t know each other well. Consider limiting sex with one committed, monogamous partner.
Wash up! People should wash their hands in soapy water before and after sex. Sex toys should also be thoroughly washed.
Having great sex
Enjoying sex during a pandemic takes some planning, but it also gives couples a chance to be creative. Here are some safe activities to think about:
Virtual sex. Couples can still share intimacy without physically being together. It might feel a little clumsy at first, but try to relax and give it a chance. Experiment by using a video-calling app, exchanging videos or photos, or sharing audio-only calls. Set the scene with some soft music or candlelight. Share fantasies. And who knows? After the pandemic is over, couples might have a new list of adventures to try in person!
Masturbation. Solo sex can be exciting, liberating, and fun. Relax and let the imagination take over. The sky’s the limit during fantasies. Making these connections in the brain can trigger deeply pleasurable physical and emotional satisfaction.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
“Dental Dam Use”(Page last reviewed: June 2, 2021)https://www.cdc.gov/condomeffectiveness/Dental-dam-use.html
“How COVID-19 Spreads”(Last updated: July 14, 2021)https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads.html
“Sex and COVID-19: Can you get COVID-19 from sexual activity?”(March 30, 2022)https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/expert-answers/sex-and-coronavirus/faq-20486572
Nature Reviews Urology
Ebner, Benedikt, et al.“The COVID-19 pandemic — what have urologists learned?”(Published: April 13, 2022)https://www.nature.com/articles/s41585-022-00586-1
NYC Health“Safer Sex and COVID-19”(October 13, 2021)https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doh/downloads/pdf/imm/covid-sex-guidance.pdf
Barber, Carolyn“When Is It Safe to Have Sex after COVID?”(March 9, 2022)https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-is-it-safe-to-have-sex-after-covid/