April is STD Awareness Month, which means it’s the perfect time to get serious about safe sex. Although it can be a bit nerve-racking, assessing your physical and sexual health helps keep you and your partner(s) safe and healthy, regardless of your age, race, orientation, or other factors.
Safe and healthy attitudes toward sex lead to safer, healthier sex lives. Therefore, we urge everyone to open up the lines of communication with trusted professionals (as well as their partners) regarding their sexual habits this month and to get tested and seek appropriate treatment for any issues.
What’s the Difference Between STDs and STIs?
Sometimes the terms “sexually transmitted disease” (STD) and “sexually transmitted infection” (STI) are used interchangeably, but the latter is now preferred in medical circles, and there is a crucial distinction between the two. Namely, all STDs were once STIs, but not all STIs are destined to develop into STDs. It is possible (and common) for individuals to have contracted a sexually transmitted infection without showing any symptoms or without the infection turning into a disease. However, infected individuals may still be contagious and at risk of developing a disease.
Sexually Transmitted Infections Are on the Rise
For years, education and awareness initiatives contributed to the decline of STIs and STDs, but new studies confirm that several of these are once again on the rise. The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that instances of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis increased for the second consecutive year in the United States during 2015:
- Chlamydia: 1,526,658 total cases (6% increase from 2014)
- Gonorrhea: 395,216 total cases (13% increase from 2014)
- Syphilis: 23,872 total cases (19% increase from 2014)
As you can see, these numbers are distressing (especially when considering the drastic increases from the previous year as well as the number of cases that go unreported), but that does not mean we can’t defend ourselves against these infections and diseases.
Protect Yourself from STIs
There are an estimated 20 million new cases of STIs annually, but there are several proactive measures we can adopt to combat the spread of these infections.
- Abstinence: Abstinence is the most effective way to avoid contracting an STI or STD. Abstinence includes abstaining from all forms of sexual intercourse, including vaginal, anal, and oral.
- Condom Use: Correctly using a condom during every instance of sexual intercourse can significantly decrease the likelihood of contracting an STD or STI. Condoms are not as effective for herpes or HPV, but sexually active individuals should always wear protection when engaging in casual or non-procreative sex to lessen their chances of receiving an STD or STI.
- Fewer Sexual Partners: Individuals in monogamous relationships who both receive regular testing are highly unlikely to contract or spread these infections.
- HPV Vaccination: HPV is the most common STD and is also the most common cause of cervical cancer, but it can now be prevented with a safe and effective vaccine. It is recommended that all boys and girls aged 11 and 12 be vaccinated, and the following people should receive catch-up vaccinations:
- Young women between 13 and 26 years of age
- Young men between 13 and 21 years of age
- Men under the age of 27 who have sex with men
- Men under the age of 27 with compromised immune systems
- Open Up a Dialogue: It might not be easy or comfortable to discuss your sexual history or have a candid conversation about safe sex before engaging in intercourse with a new partner, but it will lessen your chances of contracting or transmitting an STI or STD and could also deepen and strengthen your relationship with your partner.
Talk. Test. Treat.
The CDC recommends that you take a simple and serious approach to lowering your risk factors for contracting an STI or STD by engaging in three crucial activities:
- Talk: Discussing your sexual preferences, inclinations, and history with your partner(s) and physicians will help strengthen those relationships while decreasing your likelihood of contracting or transmitting an STI or STD. Be sure to discuss your mutual testing history with your partner(s), and ask your healthcare provider how often you should be getting tested and for which conditions.
- Test: Some individuals defer their anxiety about their sexual health with false confidence (and irresponsible sexual behavior) when it comes to STDs, especially if they have not or are not experiencing any symptoms. However, the only way to know without a doubt that you are free of STDs and STIs is to get tested on a regular basis. For individuals who would rather not discuss their sexual health and history with a primary care physician, there are clinics located throughout the Bay Area offering testing that is confidential and sometimes even free.
- Treat: If you test positive for an STD, it’s possible (perhaps even likely, depending on the condition) that your sex life and love life can continue to be healthy and intimate. However, you must work with your doctor to receive the proper treatment. Many STDs can be cured, but it’s important that you follow your doctor’s orders to the letter. Never share your medications, and abstain from sex until you and your partner(s) have completed your treatments.
If your STD(s) are not curable, there are likely treatment options that can improve or maintain your physical health and perhaps allow you to resume safe sexual habits.
Get Tested Today!
If you are sexually active, you should speak with your primary care physician or other qualified healthcare providers about which tests are most important for you based on your gender, orientation, and pregnancy status. For instance,
- Women under that age of 25 with multiple partners are recommended to receive annual chlamydia and gonorrhea tests.
- Pregnant women should undergo testing for HIV, syphilis, chlamydia, hepatitis B, and gonorrhea within their first trimester.
- Men who identify as gay or bisexual, or who have sex with men, should be tested for HIV, syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea every year.
Although individuals belonging to the groups previously listed might be at greater risk for developing or needing treatment for these infections and diseases, everyone who is sexually active should receive regular screenings to safeguard their health, as well as the safety and health of their partners.
How you can talk. Test. Treat. (2016, May 2). CDC. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/sam/2016-individuals.htm
Reported STDs in the United States: 2015 national data for chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. (2015). CDC Fact Sheet. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/docs/factsheets/std-trends-508.pdf