Turn on the news right now, and you’ll hear horror stories about this season’s flu, one of the more virulent strains the U.S. has seen in recent years. Also crappy: Flu cases continue to rise at a time when all we want to do is cozy up with our SOs—not only due to the chilly temps but also because it’s almost Valentine’s Day.
So what if you (or your partner) do come down with the flu, but you otherwise feel up for some action. Is it a sure thing that the infected partner will pass it on to the healthy one?
First, you have to consider how the virus is transmitted. “The flu is spread by way of respiratory droplets,” explains Jamin Brahmbhatt, MD, a urologist and sexual health expert at Orlando Health in Florida. “The droplets can spread via sneezing, coughing, breathing, shaking hands, and kissing.” Those virus-carrying droplets can live as long as 24 hours on countertops, 1 to 2 hours on sheets, and 15 to 30 minutes on hands, says Dr. Brahmbhatt.
But let’s get back to whether sex is a thumbs up or thumbs down. The risk of enjoying a romp while one partner has the flu is real. “The general rule is to stay six feet away from anyone who might have the flu,” says Kate White, MD, assistant professor of ob-gyn at Boston University. Since being intimate requires you to be a heck of a lot closer than that, getting it on while one of you has the flu is absolutely not advised.
“The chances you’ll get through sex without the sick partner sneezing, coughing, or even just breathing on you is highly unlikely,” adds Dr. White. Translation: Don’t do it if you know one of you is infected. That applies even if you’ve had a flu shot, as the flu vaccine only lowers your risk of getting the flu, but it doesn’t eliminate it.
What complicates things is that a flu victim can be contagious a week before they even show flu symptoms, so it’s possible to catch it from a partner who appears to be perfectly healthy. A person recovering from the flu can also be contagious up to seven days after their flu symptoms subside. For that reason, both Dr. White and Dr. Brahmbhatt recommend refraining from sex for at least a week after you or your partner are flu-symptom free.
Let’s say you just can’t keep away from your partner and think that maybe not kissing during a hookup will cut your chances. Don’t count on it. “There’s no way for people to be that close to one another without the risk of transmission from the face,” says Dr. White. “If you want to be ultra safe, it’s also a good idea to sleep in a separate bed from an infected partner.”
Luckily it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to sex and the flu. Dr. Brahmbhatt says wearing a face mask at home if your partner is infected will not only help to keep you flu-free but is also “the perfect way to live out that doctor’s office fantasy.” Plus, you’ll be all the more excited to get it on once you’re both feeling 100% again.