The Low Down on STIs
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)—the name pretty much says it all…they are infections that you catch through sexual contact. There’s a lot of different ones and their treatment, symptoms, and severity depend on which STI you’re talking about. The bottom line, though? You don’t want to get any of these. The surest way to avoid STIs is to avoid having sex. If you are having sex, though, make sure you’re using birth control that protects against STIs each and every single time you have sex.
In case you haven’t heard:
- STIs can affect anyone—women and men of all ages and racial and ethnic backgrounds. Teens and young adults get STIs more often than any other age group. About 3 million teens get STIs every year; that means about one-quarter of sexually active teens gets an STI every year.
- You can get an STI by having any kind of sex, including vaginal, oral, and anal sex. Some types of STIs can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact or even just plain old kissing. This means that it’s super important to know your partner before being intimate with them.
- It is often impossible to tell if someone has an STI. Sometimes STIs have symptoms that people can see or feel. But sometimes they don't. Even if you can’t see signs of infection, STIs can still be passed to another person. Also, some people confuse symptoms related to certain STIs with something more harmless like a common yeast infection (which is not an STI).
- Some STIs can be treated and will go away, but others can’t be cured. In these incurable cases, you can only try to suppress the symptoms and manage the condition. Left untreated, some STIs can lead to serious health complications, including pelvic inflammatory disease, organ damage, infertility, cervical cancer, or even death. If you think you have a problem, you need to see your doctor right away.
Reduce the Risk
There are lots of ways to reduce your risk of getting an STI. The most foolproof way to avoid STIs—not to mention unplanned pregnancy—is to not have sex at all. If you are having sex, though, there are other ways to reduce your risk.
- Start Talking: Talk with your partner(s) about STIs, their sexual history, and how to avoid risks before you have sex. Open communication encourages trust and respect among partners and helps reduce the risks for STIs. Plus, it’s the perfect time to figure out what kind of birth control you’re going to use…that way, you’re not waiting until you’re in the heat of the moment.
- Practice Safer Sex: Condoms—both the male and female variety—work really well at stopping the spread of most STIs when they are used consistently and correctly every single time a person has sex. Lots of people don’t know how to use a condom correctly, which can make them more susceptible to STIs. Make sure you know how to use a condom. Also, be aware that condoms made from lambskin—also known as “natural condoms”—don’t protect against STIs.
- Be Prepared: Part of making good decisions about sex is being prepared for any situation. It doesn’t matter if you're a guy or a girl, if you’re going to have sex with someone (or just think you might) you should be ready. Have condoms with you and be sure that the person you’re with has been tested and is STI-free.
- Get Tested: Testing can help you learn whether you or your partner(s) have an STI. Many STIs don’t have obvious physical symptoms, so you can’t just assume that neither of you has an STI—just because someone looks clean and healthy doesn’t mean that they are. Also, some STIs may not be detectable through testing for a few weeks—or even months—so you should talk to your health care provider about the right time to get tested.
- Limit Your Sexual Partners: If you are going to have sex, have it with just one person and make sure you know his or her sexual history. The fewer partners you have, the less chance you’ll get an STI.
- Avoid alcohol and drug use: If you're drunk or high, it's hard to make good decisions about sex—lots of teens say they’ve done something when using drugs or alcohol that they might not have done if they were sober. Avoiding alcohol and drug use reduces the risk of contracting an STI, getting pregnant, or being coerced into having sex.
Types of STIs
Here are some common STIs that should be on your radar screen:
- Chlamydia: Chlamydia is the #1 STI in the United States. It is a bacterial infection that is passed during sexual contact and can infect the penis, vagina, cervix, anus, urethra, eye, or throat. The good news? Chlamydia can easily be cured with antibiotics. The bad news? Many teens don’t know they have it because it usually has no symptoms. If left untreated, it can cause serious health problems. You can use condoms to reduce your risk of getting chlamydia.
- Crabs: These little blood-sucking bugs (eww!) nest in pubic hair and cause a lot of itching. Gross right? No contraception on the market right now will protect you from crabs. You can get them just by touching or being close to someone who has them—even if you don't have sex! They can actually jump from one person's pubic hair to another's and you can also can get them by sleeping in a bed, wearing clothes, or sitting on a toilet seat that crabs have infected. Totally treatable, but totally gross.
- Gonorrhea: Gonorrhea—a.k.a “the clap”—is caused by bacteria that grows and multiplies easily in the warm, moist areas of your body, including the cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, urethra, anus, mouth, throat, and eyes. Gonorrhea is pretty serious; if it isn't treated, it can lead to sterility, arthritis, ectopic pregnancy, and heart problems. Yikes. More than 600,000 new cases of gonorrhea are reported every year in the U.S. but the good news is that Gonorrhea is easy to treat with antibiotics. Condoms help protect against gonorrhea.
- Herpes: Herpes is a very common infection caused by two types of viruses that can affect your mouth (oral herpes) or genitals (genital herpes). Herpes is very easy to catch and can spread through touching, kissing, and/or sex with an infected person. Brief skin-to-skin contact is all that's needed to pass the virus and there’s no cure for it—once you have it, you’ll have it forever (although there are some treatments out there to help you manage your symptoms). The most common symptom of genital herpes is a cluster of blistery sores but there are actually millions of people who do not know they have herpes because they’ve never had the symptoms. It’s crucial that, if you’re going to have sex, you know your partner’s history and use condoms every time you have sex (condoms can help prevent the spread of the disease).
- HIV/AIDS: HIV is passed to sex partners through blood, semen, seminal fluid (pre-cum), and vaginal fluids. You can get HIV from direct contact, like having vaginal, anal, or oral sex, or sharing injection drug needles and syringes. Sometimes there are no signs of HIV at first—you might not know for sure that you’ve been infected until you get a blood test. Also, many people with HIV look healthy, but they can still transmit HIV. There is no cure, but treatments can help people with HIV/AIDS live for many years. Condoms offer protection against HIV, which is most often spread through unprotected sex.
- HPV/Genital warts: HPV—the human papilloma virus—affects millions of teens and is spread by skin-to-skin contact, usually during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. A few types of HPV can lead to cervical cancer and other genital cancers and a few types can lead to genital warts. There is currently no treatment to cure HPV itself. Fortunately, there's an HPV vaccine, which protects against the types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer and the types that cause most cases of genital warts. The vaccine is most effective if you get it before you become sexually active.
- Syphilis: Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by bacteria that is passed from person to person through direct contact with a syphilis sore. Sores occur mainly on the genitals, vagina, anus, or in the rectum. Sores can also occur on the lips and in the mouth. Syphilis is especially contagious in the early stages of the disease, when sores are present. Even though it is curable with antibiotics, if syphilis isn't treated, it can cause serious damage to your brain, heart, nervous system, and eventually lead to death.
For more information on these STIs and to learn about other ones not on our list, check out the American Social Health Association’s iwannaknow.org.
WHAT’S YOUR STATUS?
If you are sexually active or have been in the past, do you know your STI status? Learn more about testing and find a testing center near you.