Having just started emerging from the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, the news that there is an outbreak of the monkeypox virus spreading worldwide is not necessarily what we want to hear. But luckily, unlike COVID-19, most people recover from monkeypox within a few weeks, and it is rarely life-threatening. However, it is still a serious illness worth educating yourself on.
There is currently limited research into whether the monkeypox virus is spread through sexual transmission. However, scientists are working hard to learn more about the mysterious virus and decipher its connection to sexual health. Here, we explain what is currently known about the virus, how it is linked to sexual health, and how you can limit your risk.
What is Monkeypox?
Monkeypox is a rare disease typically associated with countries in Central or West Africa, but recently cases have been confirmed in multiple European countries, including the UK, the US and Canada.
Monkeypox may sound jovial and harmless, but don’t let the name fool you. It is actually a nasty virus similar to smallpox, causing a flu-like illness and painful, itchy sores. Once infected with the monkeypox virus, the first symptoms usually develop after 5-21 days. These vary between individuals, but common symptoms include:
- Rashes or sores around the genitals, anus, hands, feet, chest and face, which may appear similar to chickenpox.
- Muscle aches
- Swollen lymph nodes
The good news is that monkeypox is usually a mild illness, and most people recover within a few weeks and don’t need any specific treatment. However, some people are at higher risk of falling more seriously ill, so it is important to seek advice if you have symptoms and to isolate yourself to prevent spread. This leads us to the next important point - how you catch monkeypox.
How Monkeypox is Spread Between People
Monkeypox was originally caught from infected animals such as rodents and monkeys and is thought to have spread to humans in 1970. The current outbreak is transmitted among people who have not necessarily travelled to countries where the virus is endemic, and cases are rising. The monkeypox virus is passed between individuals through:
- Skin-to-skin contact and directly touching monkeypox blisters, sores or rash.
- Contact with objects, fabrics and surfaces that an infected person has touched.
- Respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing or oral fluids.
As monkeypox is spread via these routes, sexual or intimate contact is a common way the virus is contracted. Things like hugging, kissing, massage or even talking closely may seem innocent enough, but if you or your partner(s) are infected, the virus may spread.
Oral, anal or vaginal sex with an infected person exposes you to monkeypox rashes or sores commonly found in the genital area. Similarly, you can catch monkeypox if you touch the bedding, clothing or sex toys that were used by an infected person.
So is Monkeypox a Sexually Transmitted Infection?
In a sense, yes, monkeypox is a sexually transmitted infection as it can be transmitted through sexual contact. But it isn’t classified as such, as the virus has other means of transmission that don’t involve sex. It has not been confirmed whether the virus can be transmitted through semen, vaginal and other bodily fluids.
According to the World Health Organization, most cases so far have appeared in men who have sex with men (MSM). This has raised concerns about the possible sexual transmission of the virus. One study found that the monkeypox virus was present in the semen of four MSM patients with monkeypox infection. However, this does not necessarily mean semen is a source of transmission, as other viruses found in semen show no evidence of sexual transmission. Scientists are investigating this further, but it is hypothesised that sexual transmission is possible.
Although most cases are found in men who have sex with men, it’s important to remember that anyone who comes into contact with the virus can get it, regardless of their sexuality!
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How to Reduce Your Risk During Sex
The potential risk of monkeypox transmission through sex means it is important to learn what precautions you can take to prevent infection during sex. These include:
- If you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above, avoid close contact with others and seek medical assistance. In addition, you can take one of our at-home STI kits to rule out other sexually transmitted infections.
- If you or your partner has been diagnosed with monkeypox, you should abstain from all forms of sex and physical contact, including cuddling and kissing.
- Avoid sharing objects like toothbrushes, towels, clothes etc. and consider sleeping in separate bedrooms from your infected partner.
- If you have been advised to isolate at home, make sure you do so until your isolation time is up.
- If you notice a new or unexplained rash or sore on your body, make sure to inform your partner and avoid intimacy until you have had it checked out.
- Practice safe sex and wear condoms or dental dams.
- If you do decide to have sex with an infected partner, try to limit skin-to-skin contact and have sex with your clothes on, or cover areas where a rash or sores are present.
- Have other forms of sex that don’t involve physical contact, such as virtual sex, phone sex, or mutual masturbation.
- Avoid kissing.
- Wash your hands, sex toys, bedding, fetish gear etc., after sex.
- Limit your number of sexual partners.
Read more about how to reduce your risk of getting an STI in our previous blog post.
Monkeypox is a rare disease usually found in parts of Africa but has recently spread to other parts of the world. It causes rashes and painful sores or blisters on the body, accompanied by flu-like symptoms. Generally, it is mild, and symptoms will disappear after a few weeks.
Monkeypox is on the rise in MSM communities, which has sparked concerns about it being transmitted through sexual activities. Current research states the virus is transmitted through close physical contact with an infected individual, touching fabrics or objects used by someone with the virus, and via respiratory droplets. In addition, some research suggests the virus may be present in semen, but further investigation is needed to confirm this.
Taking extra precautions during sex, especially in the MSM community, can help reduce your likelihood of catching the virus.