Intimacy, sex, and COVID-19



Intimacy, sex, and COVID-19 1

Home with your partner and hours of time ticking slowly by? As the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 continues to spread widely in the US and beyond, restrictions that promote social distancing do, too. By now, you may find yourself essentially quarantined at home with your partner. While this can be a wonderful time to connect with each other, you may have questions about how much intimacy is safe.

A refresher course on how the coronavirus spreads

Evidence shows that the virus spreads person-to-person through sustained close contact.

  • The virus is carried in respiratory droplets transmitted by sneezing and coughing. If people are nearby, droplets might land in their mouths or noses or possibly be inhaled.
  • Viral particles called aerosols may float or drift in the air when an infected person talks, sings, or breathes. People nearby may inhale aerosols.
  • Research shows the virus can live on surfaces and may be spread when a person touches those surfaces, then touches their face.
  • Whether an infected person sheds the virus in saliva, semen, or vaginal fluids isn’t known. Although the virus has been found in feces, transmission of the virus this way appears to be rare, if at all.

The definition of “sustained close contact” may change as we learn more, but running or walking by someone who has the virus is a lower risk scenario. Being in the same room as an infected person so that you’re breathing the same air for a while is a higher risk scenario. Expert opinion differs on what close contact entails and how many minutes of close contact is high risk. Generally, being within six feet of someone infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 for longer than a few minutes can put you at increased risk of getting the virus.

How safe is intimacy with a partner?

True, many forms of intimacy require a closer distance than the six feet of separation recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Yet this does not mean that you should isolate yourself from your spouse or partner and stop being intimate at all. If both of you are healthy and feeling well, are practicing social distancing and have had no known exposure to anyone with COVID-19, touching, hugging, kissing, and sex are more likely to be safe. Similarly, sharing a bed with a partner who is healthy should not be an issue.

Be aware, though, that the CDC reports that some people may have the virus and not yet have symptoms during the early part of the incubation period (presymptomatic). Additionally, some people never develop obvious symptoms of COVID-19 (asymptomatic). In either case, it’s possible that the virus might spread through physical contact and intimacy.

What about intimacy if one partner has been ill?

If you or your partner have been sick with COVID-19 and are now recovering, this CDC page explains ways to prevent the spread of germs, including not sharing bedding –– or presumably, a bed –– and abstaining from all intimate contact until

  • at least seven days after symptoms first started
  • and other symptoms have improved
  • and at least 72 hours fever-free without the use of any medications.

However, one study suggested that the virus may shed for up to 14 days, so you may want to minimize contact for up to 14 days.

During this time, the person who is sick should self-quarantine and limit use of common spaces as much as possible. It’s important to wipe down all common surfaces, wash all bedding, and take other steps recommended by the CDC if a person is ill.

The good news? Public health authorities in Shenzen, China found that there was a 14.9% transmission rate among household contacts. Risks to household members are minimized through steps that include self-quarantine for the person showing signs of illness and excellent hand hygiene for the whole household.

What if your partner works in a job where there’s a high risk of catching the virus?

If your partner works in a high-risk field such as healthcare or has contact with the general public, decisions around intimacy or even self-quarantine in the absence of symptoms are personal. Some healthcare workers have quarantined themselves from their families, while others practice good hand hygiene and have a separate set of clothing dedicated for work. You and your partner should discuss what you are both comfortable with, since there are no evidence-based guidelines currently, given that this is a novel virus.

What about starting a new relationship?

For those people who would like to start a new relationship, that should be considered carefully. All of us should be practicing social distancing at this time due to the pandemic, and dating does not comply with recommendations for social distancing. While this time is challenging, social distancing is of the utmost importance to keep you and your loved ones safe.

Are any forms of intimacy and sex completely safe right now?

Six feet of separation required by social distancing may not entirely slow you down. Masturbation, phone sex with a partner who doesn’t live with you, and sex toys (used just by you) could play a big role in sexual intimacy, particularly in this moment. And if you’re not in the mood for sex and are wondering how anyone can engage in intimacy in this moment, that’s also normal. People have different psychological responses to stress. If living through a pandemic has dampened your sexual desire, it will return once life returns to normal.

If you do have a regular intimate partner, keep in mind that coronavirus is not the only issue that you should be concerned about. You should use contraception if you are not planning on conceiving, and you should use a condom to protect against sexually transmitted infections. For more information, see the Harvard Health Birth Control Center.

For additional information on coronavirus and COVID-19, see the Harvard Health Publishing Coronavirus Resource Center and podcasts.

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