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The short answer to the question “How long can STDs live on clothing?” is: Not very long at all. STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) have adapted to live within warm, moist environments and rely on a host to survive. While the germs that transmit the flu or the common cold can survive for some time on surfaces, the same is not true for most STD viruses.
You’re highly unlikely to contract an STD from trying on a piece of clothing, but the chance is still greater than zero. Let’s look at how STDs can might possibly infect someone through clothing, how long STD viruses can live outside the body, and ways to prevent infection.
Can Clothing Allow Transmission of STDs?
Most STDs or sexually transmitted diseases require sexual contact or, at the very least direct skin contact in order to spread. Since the incubation period for STDs varies, it’s possible for people to spread certain STDs without even knowing that they have an infection.
As an example, someone with dormant trichomoniasis could potentially have the infection for years without showing symptoms.
But beyond spreading an STD to sexual partners through direct contact, is it possible to spread certain sexually transmitted diseases to others without physical contact? That is, if you’ve shared clothing with someone you believe may have an STD, is there a chance you could contract the disease as well?
While most STDs cannot live for long outside of a host, several types—molluscum contagiosum, scabies, and pubic lice—can.
Also colloquially known as crabs, pubic lice are a parasitic infection where small organisms live within the host’s pubic hair. While pubic lice often spread through contact between sex partners, they can also spread via casual contact on swimsuits, towels, bed linen, clothing, and similar fabrics.
While the number of pubic lice infections has diminished in frequency over time in past decades, this type of infection has not gone away completely. In fact, close to 5% of the population could suffer from pubic lice.
Scabies is a skin condition that typically results in itching, especially around nighttime. The itching is from tiny mites that burrow under the skin. While scabies commonly spreads through sexual contact with an infected person, it can survive on clothing and other fabrics for close to a week. Luckily, washing any affected clothes or linens with very hot water kills off the mites and prevents the scabies from spreading.
You can recognize molluscum contagiosum by the tiny bumps that it leaves on the skin. These lesions can be as small as the head of a pin or as large as an eraser on a pencil. This viral infection easily spreads through sexual contact, but it can also spread through infected clothing or other surfaces (such as a toilet seat) when a non-infected person comes into contact with them.
The good news with pubic lice, scabies, and molluscum contagiosum is that all three diseases have short dormancy periods and present obvious symptoms to those who become infected.
By taking simple precautions like washing clothes separately in very hot water, disinfecting shared surfaces, and not sharing clothing, you can easily prevent infection.
Can You Get an STD From Trying on Clothes in Stores?
While most STDs can only survive in or on the human body, some viral and bacterial infections can survive on clothing and surfaces for days. It’s surprisingly common for people to unwittingly contract an STD while trying on swimsuits, underwear, and clothes.
Most people don’t remove their underwear while trying on swimsuits, but it’s still a good practice to assume that someone else has tried the item on without underwear and to wash all clothing items in hot water before wearing them for the first time.
Some of the common reasons for people taking off their underwear when trying on clothes include diffusion of responsibility, a false belief that they’re clean of infection, and a false sense of security that no one else has broken the rules.
Many dressing rooms have signs that specifically ask customers not to remove underwear when trying on clothing items. Even so, some customers want to see what they’ll look like in a swimsuit without their underwear in the way, and they assume that no harm exists in breaking the rules one time.
Such shoppers might also be unaware of their infection or assume that the hygienic liner in the swimsuit itself is enough to prevent anything from spreading. However, this is a potentially dangerous practice for public health.
If you believe that you’ve suffered exposure to pubic lice, scabies, or another STD while trying on clothing, Rapid STD Testing offers products that can help. This rapid STD test can get you your results within 1-3 days.
How Long Can STD Viruses or Bacteria Survive Outside the Body?
Most STDs cannot survive for very long outside of the human body. Let’s look through some common sexually transmitted diseases and take note of how long each can survive without a human host.
- Chlamydia: This STD can only survive outside of a human body for two or three hours. Since it requires particularly humid conditions and can’t live for long without a host, it’s unlikely that chlamydia could spread via contact with clothing or other surfaces.
- Gonorrhea: The gonorrheal bacteria can only survive for a few minutes without a human host, so it’s extremely unlikely for gonorrhea to spread through contact with affected surfaces or shared clothing.
- Hepatitis B: The Hep B virus can survive for as long as a week without a human host. During this time, a non-infected person can contract this disease.
- Hepatitis C: The Hep C virus can actually live for up to three weeks without a human host, as long as the environment is hospitable to it (around room temperature). This disease is among the easiest to contract without the need for sexual contact between an infected and non-infected person.
- HIV: The HIV virus cannot survive very long without a human host and the ability to reproduce. After minutes or hours, HIV will die on an inanimate surface.
- Syphilis: This disease can only survive for very brief periods of time outside of the human body. Syphilis most commonly spreads through direct sexual contact.
- HPV: Human papillomavirus cannot survive for very long outside of a host, so it’s nearly impossible to contract this disease from contact with a toilet seat or similar surface.
Preventing STD Infections
Since the spread of sexually transmitted diseases through clothing is uncommon, the best way to prevent infection remains to avoid contact with an infected person’s genitals or mouth. Always practice safe sex and use a condom with new partners or with partners who have an STD, even if they don’t currently show any signs of infection.
Some STDs can spread while someone is asymptomatic, meaning they show no physical symptoms but are still contagious. If you believe you might have an infection, get tested right away. This 10 panel STD test can detect a wide range of possible diseases. Visit your doctor as soon as possible to carry out a treatment plan and avoid sexual contact until your doctor tells you it’s safe to resume sexual activity.
Beyond safe sex, always keep your underwear on when trying on new clothing. Even though stores have rules in place, the best practice is to assume that no one else follows the rules and that you always should.
The unfortunate reality is that it’s surprisingly common for people to take off their underwear while trying on clothes, so a false sense of security will do nothing but put you and others at risk.
Even if you keep your underwear on while trying on your new clothing, always wash your clothes before wearing them for the first time. It’s understandable that you might be more than a little excited about your new swimsuit purchase, but it’s safer to wait that extra hour or so and run your item through the wash before trying it on.
Hot water is best for killing off the majority of sexually transmitted diseases, and it can also remove bacteria and reduce the risk of infection for you as well. Hot water plus color-safe bleach remains the best way to kill off anything hitching a ride on a new clothing item. Also, be sure to wash your hands after handling any new pieces of clothing.
If you Googled “How long can STDs live on clothing?,” the chances are good that you have some concern about your STD status. Don’t remain in the dark for any longer than you have to. Get in touch with Rapid STD Testing at (866) 872-1888 and set up your appointment today.