Is my sex toy infected?
posted: 04/23/2008 12:00 am
Dear Dr. Myrtle,
I recently found out that I had an STI, and I had it treated with antibiotics. However, I own a couple of sex toys that I used while I was infected. I know that you say not to share sex toys with partners, so I’m wondering: if I can infect someone else with my sex toy, can’t I also reinfect myself with my toys? Do I need to throw away my toys to protect my health?
Yes, it is possible to infect a toy and then reinfect yourself, but there are some details regarding the type of material the toy is made from that determine whether the toy should be pitched.
Transmission of an infection through a inanimate object is technically called fomite transmission. The success of fomite transmission depends on a number of factors: 1) the infectious particle; 2) the vector (or object, like your toy); 3) the potential "infectee" (person in contact with the object). Let’s consider them separately:
1) Infectious particles: All infectious particles (viruses, bacteria, fungi, little swimming protozoa) require specific environmental factors in order to survive or to pass on an infection. For example, some bacterial forms like chlamydia require direct skin cell to skin cell transmission, because the chlamydia only lives inside of skin cells. But if the skin cells are transferred to a porous plastic and then kept moist (such as from hand to eye-dropper), studies have shown that an infection can be transmitted from the eye-dropper to the eye (see Novak et al, Cornea. 1995 Sep;14(5):523-6.).
Chlamydia can, of course, be transmitted directly from ejaculate to eye, because the infected cells then transmit the infection to the cells of the cornea (see Rackstraw et al, Int J STD AIDS. 2006 Sep;17(9):639-41). Therefore, it is also reasonable to think that wet ejaculate, such as from a giving a handjob, smeared on a toy which is then used, can easily transmit the infection. Flies (the buzzing kind) can also transmit moist infections, so even if you washed your hands, the flies in your room might not have, if any drips are left around.
Considering other types of infections, scientists have looked carefully at how much volume of an infectious particle is needed to cause an infection, and in some cases, it’s pretty small. HIV, for example, can be transmitted through tiny holes in poorly made condoms. This is why technology has progressed substantially in the past decade detecting condom flaws before the condom is used.
In general, wet things transmit infections better than dry things because moisture is a critical feature of infectious-particle survival. Creatures, including viruses and protozoa, require water to live in environments--the dryer a spot, the harder the survival.
2) Vector (i.e. sex toy): The more porous a material is, the more likely infectious particles can be trapped in the pores, and the more difficult it is to clean. For example, high-density polyethylene kitchen cutting boards are not highly porous until used: knives cut into the dense surface leaving pockets (pores, if you will) which then harbor bacteria and keep them moist. Washing the plastic board in the dishwasher *does not* sterilize these little pockets, and may spread the bacteria to other objects being washed (eww).
Sex toys are often made of much more porous plastics than cutting boards. Beyond the potential toxicities of the plastics (see phthalates article), these soft crevices certainly have the potential to hold infectious particles, and depending on conditions, to keep them moist. We worry particularly about plastics, since they are so effective at keeping bacteria (etc.) alive that they are often used in laboratories to grow them. However, pores are not required to transmit infections: even a penny can transmit dangerous infectious materials (see Tolba et al, Am J Infect Control. 2007 Jun;35(5):342-6).
A toy with pores and pockets (usually plastic, but other materials are possible, too) is able to hold infectious particles more easily. A toy that is not completely dried is more infectious, so leather harnesses swapped from partner to partner or kept moist in a drawer are potential transmitters. A toy used by one person, then another, can definitely transmit to the next person. A toy used by one person, then re-used can also reinfect, as can a partner who never got cured.
3) The infectee: It’s easier for an infection to live on and come from a human (moist beings that we are), but unsterilized sex toys can also transmit infections right back to you.
Additionally, how exactly do you know when you got the infection? Infections are very easy to spread and are quite often asymptomatic (that is, the infected person shows no symptoms). Therefore, it can be difficult to pinpoint when and from whom you got a particular infection. You may have had it yourself, given it to someone else, then they have symptoms, get tested, and tell you.
For this reason, I recommend throwing out non-sterilizable toys and only using new toys after your infection is shown to be "lab cleared" (a health care provider has tested you and the test came back negative after treatment was finished). It’s way too easy to think that your infection was cured because you don’t have symptoms after treatment, but statistics show that many people with STIs don’t have symptoms. Unless you’re tested, you take the risk of continuing to be infected since you can’t tell the difference by symptoms alone.
It’s far less expensive to buy a new toy than to continue being infected and paying for the antibiotics for you, your partner(s) etc. For non-porous toys, like those made from 100% silicone, glass, and stainless steel, you can reduce your risk somewhat by soaking them in 3% hydrogen peroxide for 90 minutes, completely submerged. This is NOT a complete, 100% fool-proof sterilization, though, so you’re taking your own risk in using this strategy. For everything else, I’d pitch it.