Online Dermatologist > Sexually Transmitted Infections that Spread by Skin Contact

Sexually Transmitted Infections that Spread by Skin Contact

by | Nov 1, 2023 | Blog, Sexual Health, STD Prevention

man and a woman cuddling - safe sex

Key Takeaways

  • Some STIs can be transmitted through direct skin-to-skin contact, not just through bodily fluids.
  • Herpes and HPV are examples of STIs that can spread even without sexual intercourse.
  • Vaccination, particularly for HPV, is a key preventive measure against certain STIs.
  • Consistent use of barriers like condoms and regular STI screenings are critical for prevention and early detection.
  • Early recognition of symptoms and responsible communication with partners are essential in managing STIs.

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are a significant public health concern, affecting individuals worldwide. These infections are typically transmitted by bacterial, viral, or parasites with sexual activities by exchange of bodily fluids. Sexual contact, encompassing activities such as vaginal, oral, or anal sex.[1] However, it’s important to recognize that not all STIs follow the same transmission patterns. 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.


What Does “Direct Skin Contact” Mean in the Context of STIs?

In the context of STIs, “direct skin contact” refers to the mode of transmission where the infection is spread through the physical contact of an infected person’s skin with the skin of an uninfected person.[2] Unlike many other STIs, which are transmitted via infected bodily fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal secretions, or saliva, skin-to-skin STIs do not necessarily require the exchange of these fluids for transmission. Understanding the concept of direct skin contact is vital to grasp the full spectrum of STI transmission.

To differentiate between fluid-based transmission and direct contact, it’s crucial to recognize that not all STIs follow the same path. While fluid-based transmission primarily occurs through the exchange of infected bodily fluids during sexual activities, direct contact transmission arises from contact with the infected skin or mucous membranes. Herpes and HPV are prime examples of STIs that are spread primarily through direct skin contact.

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infections that are passed from one person to another through sexual contact. They are usually spread during vaginal, oral, or anal sex. But sometimes they can spread through other sexual contact involving the penis, vagina, mouth, or anus. This is because some STDs, like herpes and HPV, are spread by skin-to-skin contact.

Some STIs can be passed from a pregnant person to the baby, either during pregnancy or when giving birth. Other ways that STIs may be spread include during breastfeeding, through blood transfusions, or by sharing needles.

There are more than 20 types of STDs, including:

  • Chlamydia
  • Genital herpes
  • Gonorrhea
  • HIV
  • HPV
  • Pubic lice
  • Syphilis
  • Trichomoniasis[3]

Understanding the various methods of transmission is essential for effective prevention and management of these infections. In the following sections, we will delve deeper into the specific STIs that are transmitted through direct skin contact, shedding light on their characteristics and implications. This knowledge is crucial for both individuals and healthcare professionals to promote safer sexual practices and minimize the spread of these infections.

STIs Transmitted Through Direct Skin Contact

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that can be transmitted through direct skin contact are a significant concern for sexual health. Understanding these infections, their symptoms, transmission methods, prevention, early detection, and treatment is crucial. In this section, we will delve into four such STIs that are commonly transmitted through direct skin contact.


Herpes (Genital & Oral)

Herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) and is one of the most prevalent STIs globally. It exists in two main forms: HSV-1, which usually causes oral herpes (cold sores), and HSV-2, responsible for genital herpes.[4] Skin-to-skin contact can transfer the virus to the uninfected person. Herpes infections can manifest as painful sores or blisters on the mouth or genitals. This contact-based transmission can occur even without sexual intercourse. It’s worth noting that the virus can be transmitted when sores are not present, making it particularly challenging to prevent.

Preventing herpes transmission involves practicing safe sex and using barriers like condoms. People with herpes should abstain from sexual contact during outbreaks. Antiviral medications are available to reduce the frequency and severity of outbreaks, and in some cases, vaccination may offer protection against certain strains.


Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

HPV is a diverse group of viruses, and some types can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact by virus entering the epithelium through disruption to the skin/mucosa and infects basal stem cells.[5] This includes anogenital warts (condyloma acuminata), which are caused by low-risk HPV strains. While many HPV infections are asymptomatic, some can lead to genital warts, and certain high-risk HPV strains can cause various cancers, including cervical cancer. HPV transmission is not exclusive to sexual intercourse, as skin contact can transfer the virus.

Vaccination against HPV is a crucial preventive measure. Vaccines like Gardasil and Cervarix target the most common high-risk HPV strains, offering protection against the development of cervical and other cancers. Vaccination is recommended for both males and females, ideally before the onset of sexual activity.



Syphilis is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum and can be transmitted through direct skin contact.[6] Syphilis spreads from person-to-person by direct contact with a syphilitic sore, known as a chancre. Chancres can occur in, on, or around the penis, vagina, anus, rectum, and lips or mouth. Syphilis can spread during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Pregnant people with syphilis also can transmit the infection to their unborn child. [7] As the infection progresses, it can affect various body systems, causing severe health issues if leave untreated.

Early detection of syphilis is vital for effective treatment. Testing and diagnosis are essential for anyone engaging in sexual activity. Syphilis can be effectively treated with antibiotics in its early stages. Regular testing and safe sexual practices are key to preventing the spread of this STI.


Molluscum Contagiosum

Molluscum contagiosum is a viral skin infection caused by the molluscum contagiosum virus (MCV). It often presents as small, painless, raised bumps on the skin. Molluscum contagiosum is primarily transmitted through direct person-to-person physical contact or by coming into contact with contaminated objects, known as fomites. Fomites can include items like clothing, towels, bathing sponges, pool equipment, and toys, but it’s unclear whether water in swimming pools, baths, or saunas can transmit the virus. Autoinoculation is a way the virus can spread within the same person by touching or scratching a lesion and then touching another part of the body. Shaving and electrolysis procedures can also contribute to the spread of molluscum.

Sexual contact is a significant mode of transmission among adults, but not all cases are sexually transmitted. It’s uncertain whether mere contact with intact lesions can transmit the disease or if breaking a lesion and transferring core material is necessary for transmission. Importantly, the virus remains localized in the top layer of the skin (epidermis) and doesn’t circulate throughout the body, so it can’t be spread through coughing or sneezing. Once the lesions have cleared, the virus is no longer present and cannot be transmitted to others.[8]

Molluscum contagiosum can resolve on its own, but treatment may be necessary to prevent further spread. Cryotherapy, laser therapy, or topical treatments can be used to remove the growths. It’s essential to consult a healthcare professional for guidance on treatment options.

Importance of Regular Check-Ups and STI Screenings


1. Regular Testing: Regular STI testing is crucial, especially if you engage in sexual activity with new or multiple partners. Many STIs may not present symptoms immediately, and regular screenings can detect infections early.

2. Early Detection and Treatment: Early detection of STIs, such as syphilis, herpes, and HPV, is key to successful treatment and prevention of complications. Healthcare providers can recommend appropriate tests and treatments.


Tips on Recognizing and Responding to Potential Symptoms

1. Know the Symptoms: Understanding the symptoms associated with specific STIs is essential. For instance, herpes may cause painful sores, while HPV can lead to genital warts. Being aware of these symptoms can prompt timely action.

2. Seek Medical Advice: If you notice any potential symptoms of an STI, such as sores, rashes, or unusual genital discomfort, seek medical advice promptly. Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial in preventing complications and transmission to others.

3. Abstain from Sexual Activity: If you suspect you have an STI or are awaiting test results, abstain from sexual activity to prevent potential transmission to partners.

4. Notify Sexual Partners: If you are diagnosed with an STI, it is essential to notify your recent sexual partners so that they can seek testing and treatment. This responsible action can help curb the spread of STIs.



1. Michael Ray Garcia, Leslie SW, Wray AA. Sexually Transmitted Infections. May 30, 2023. Accessed October 30, 2023.

2. Webster JP, Borlase A, Rudge JW. Who acquires infection from whom and how? Disentangling multi-host and multi-mode transmission dynamics in the “elimination” era. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. 2017;372(1719):20160091-20160091. doi:

3. Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Accessed October 30, 2023.

4. Herpes Simplex Virus. Published April 5, 2023.

5. Luria L, Cardoza-Favarato G. Human Papillomavirus. PubMed. Published 2020.

6.Donkor, C.M.Y.A., Aryee-Boi, J., Osazuwa, I.R., Afflu, F.K., Alexis, A.F. Sexually Transmitted Illnesses. In: Atlas of Dermatological Conditions in Populations of African Ancestry Springer, Cham. January 2021:173-178. doi:

7.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. STD Facts – Syphilis (Detailed). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2019.

8. Transmission | Molluscum Contagiosum | Pox viruses | December 18, 2018.

9. Workowski KA. Sexually Transmitted Infections Treatment Guidelines, 2021. MMWR Recommendations and Reports. 2021;70(4). doi:


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