Learn ‘Em, Test ‘Em, Treat ‘Em: Your STI Awareness Guide
If you’re sexually active, there’s a good chance you’ve heard these dreaded four little words:
“You should get tested.”
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are definitely the LAST things you want to be thinking about when getting hot and heavy, whether it comes up pre-or post-play. But with 110 million Americans infected at any given time, chances are you’ve felt that pang, knowing something isn’t quite right down there. And as awkward and uncomfortable (literally) as STIs can be, living with one that is undiagnosed is infinitely worse.
In case you hadn’t heard, April was STI Awareness Month, the CDC’s effort to educate the public and prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections through spreading information. For instance, did you know that young people aged 15 to 24 are diagnosed with a whopping two-thirds of all STIs, with the number of preventable diseases (like chlamydia and gonorrhea) actually on the rise? And according to at-home STD testing company myLAB Box, who are at the forefront of diagnosing infections nationwide, as many as 80% of infections may not even have any symptoms. Yikes!
Even though April is now in our rearview mirror, awareness and education about sexual health remain important 365 days a year. Knowing how to talk about STDs and STIs (which aren’t the same thing, BTW) will hopefully help us all understand a little better both when we should test and how to treat them if we’re diagnosed. There’s still a lot to learn about transmission and infection, but knowledge is power!
In case you missed the boat last month, here are 10 common questions about STDs and STIs that all sexually active individuals should know the answers to:
What’s the difference between “D” and “I”?
To-MAY-to/to-MAH-to, right? Not quite. Though the terms STD and STI are often used interchangeably, they technically have very different meanings. Having an STI means someone has an infection that has not yet developed into a disease. For example, a woman with HPV who shows no symptoms has an infection, but if she develops cervical cancer as a result, she now has an STD, as cancer is a disease. Healthcare professionals around the world also prefer to use the term STI as is has fewer negative connotations.
How many are out there?
There are currently 27 STIs listed in medical textbooks. As all STDs technically start out as STIs, the precise number of STDs is unknown. In other words, an infection can turn into many different types of diseases and it’s hard to know how they all originate.
Which are the most common?
You’ve probably heard of the most common infections. They include chlamydia, genital warts, HPV and genital herpes. Did you know that gonorrhea, PID and syphilis are the most common diseases? Hepatitis B and C, as well as HIV, are also well known and very serious. This is why it’s so important to test and catch STIs while they’re still STIs.
What about lesser-known STIs & STDs? What are the signs?
Most likely, you haven’t heard of MPC (STI), chancroid (STI) or LGV (STD). MPC can most often develop as a result of chlamydia and gonorrhea, while LGV can be a result of lesions caused by receiving unprotected anal sex. Unusual vaginal discharge, spotting, swollen lymph nodes, pain during (or after) sex and ulcers around the genitals are all possible symptoms of these STIs.
Who’s most at risk?
Young people and those in the LGBTQI community are far more likely to become infected with an STI than older people. Some say that reasons for this may be that alcohol and drugs are more often involved in sexual encounters, resulting in risky behavior and multiple partners. But across the board, lack of education, awareness and testing is the main problem. For young women, physical differences also play a part. Underdeveloped cervixes and smaller bodies are more likely to tear and leave women susceptible to infections.
But don’t think you’re immune if you’re straight, male or in a relationship. Serial monogamy—or going from one serious/monogamous relationship to another—increases the risks of contracting an STI, especially if you stop taking precautions simply because you’re “exclusive”. Monogamy is only effective at preventing STIs if both partners have been tested.
How are they spread/transmitted?
STIs are spread through contact with the infected area, skin or mucous membranes (such as sores in the mouth), as well as contact with infected fluids like blood, semen or vaginal fluids. Exposure to any of these can occur during vaginal, anal or oral sex. While kissing won’t generally carry the risk of infection, anyone with open sores or an outbreak of oral herpes (cold sores) could transmit their infection.
How do I stay protected?
Having sex inside a monogamous relationship where you’ve both been tested is the only surefire way to avoid STIs. This, however, is not a realistic expectation for everyone. The most common way to stay protected is to use a condom. Every time. And it’s still important to note that condoms guard against most STIs, but not all! Herpes and HPV can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact with the infected area, so in these cases the only sure way to prevent infection is to avoid contact. Have yourself and your partner tested and wait until the outbreak subsides before getting down.
Speaking of protecting yourself, did you know that vaccinations are available for HPV and Hepatitis B? Also, PrEP may be a suitable option for prevention for those at high risk for HIV.
And remember, don’t leave the SKYN Elite at home just because you’re on the pill—condoms are the only form of birth control that also prevent STIs. If you really want to stay safe and healthy, then double-down on the protection… And no, that does not mean wearing two condoms.
Sores, itching, a burning sensation—you’re probably familiar with the most common signs of an infection. But there are many more symptoms beyond pain when you pee to watch out for. Painless sores around the mouth or genitals can be sign of syphilis, while flu-like symptoms may indicate HIV. Indicators can also be different for men and women, with testicular pain a possible sign of gonorrhea in men and discomfort in the lower belly occurring for women. A large amount of symptoms can seem harmless and often go unnoticed, which is all the more reason to get tested regularly.
What if you have no symptoms?
Unfortunately, not having symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have an STI. Among the most common—HPV, gonorrhea, herpes and chlamydia—symptoms can be mild, or not show up for years or at all! Though it’s important to monitor any changes to your body, regular testing (even if you’re in an exclusive relationship) is the only way to know for sure.
Are they treatable? Curable? What’s the difference?
Bacterial infections like gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis are relatively easy to cure with antibiotics if treatment is sought early enough. Curing the STI means the individual no longer has the infection and therefore can’t pass it on. Unfortunately, other STIs can only be treated, not cured. Genital herpes, warts, Hepatitis B and HIV are viral infections—meaning symptoms can be managed with various medications and sometimes even kept at bay. Though once contracted, they’re with you for life.
Getting tested can seem like a scary, awkward inconvenience, but it’s crucial for maintaining a happy, healthy sex life.
The good news is that advancements in medical science have made testing easy and accessible. One great new option is myLab Box, which gives you a way to test for STIs in the convenience and privacy of your own home. The first nationwide service of its type, myLab Box offers screening for oral and rectal infections in addition to conventional testing. Results are lab-certified and just as accurate as at your doctor’s office. Plus for anyone who tests positive, consultations with STI counselors and physicians are arranged for no additional charge.
The only thing worse than living with the fear of not knowing if you are infected is unknowingly infecting someone else. If you’re sexually active, take some time to both educate and take care of yourself. With quick, accurate testing options and easily accessible treatment, there’s no excuse! Set your mind at ease and get some answers. You don’t even have to leave your house!