Depending on what sexual education you were exposed to growing up, Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) were probably at the forefront of those conversations.
In the aftermath of those often misinformed, awkward, and sometimes outright harmful talks, are young people with a lot of questions, and not much support. All too often sex ed is plagued by a lack of clarity and helpful information, or presented in a way that students won’t necessarily benefit from.
As people get older and probably have more sex, they still usually haven’t had a chance to evolve their knowledge of sexual health.
The conversation around STIs continues to be filled with embarrassment and shame when in reality, they are a normal byproduct of being a sexual human being. Oftentimes, that means that the stigma of STIs is greater than the reality of having one.
The more we are able to normalize STIs and all things sexual health, the more empowered people can feel about their sexual choices. No matter their age, gender, or sexual preferences.
One of the greatest tools around normalizing STIs is education. Which is what we’re here today to do: Talk about STIs. Discuss the most commonly occurring ones, and other general questions you may have.
How common are STIs?
According to the American Sexual Health Organization, one in two sexually active people in the U.S. will contract an STI by the age of twenty-five. Of the twenty million new STI cases that are diagnosed in the U.S. each year, about half of those are amongst people aged fifteen to twenty-four.
That’s pretty common! Without leading with fear, it is important to understand the nature of STIs, your risks, how to prevent them, and how to navigate them if you do get one – which is totally normal!
How often should I get tested?
As with most things sexual health, this is a personal decision. It depends on who you’re having sex, what kind of sex you’re having, how many partners you have, and how many partners your partners may have.
The average recommendation is once a year, but some people go every six months or more often. If you show any symptoms of an STI, it’s important to get tested right away to prevent any long term health issues.
How do I talk to my partner about STIs?
This conversation can be totally nerve-wracking, awkward, and full of so many other emotions. Especially if you have an STD, or have been diagnosed with an STI in the past.
Only you know the best way to communicate with a new (or old) partner about STIs. It’s important to be as honest and straightforward as possible. Asking questions like “When was the last time you were tested?” “Have you had sex with anyone since then?” “How do you work to prevent STIs?”
Remember that not only are STIs totally normal, but that if you or your partner have one, you are still so worthy of having a thriving and fulfilling sex life.
Now let’s get to the basics on the most commonly diagnosed STIs…
Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
Ever had a pap smear? That not so fun experience of swiping your cervix with a cotton swab, is to test for HPV – the most commonly transmitted sexual infection.
HPV is actually the name for a group of viruses. Of the more than one hundred different strains of HPV, fourteen of those are potentially cancer causing, which can potentially lead to cervical or other genital cancers.
Other forms can lead to uncomfortable genital warts, which are highly contagious.
HPV can potentially be spread through any sort of skin to genital contact, not just penetration. While there is a vaccine that can help prevent certain types of HPV that can lead to cervical cancer, most cases of HPV clear up on their own within two years.
Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV)
There are two strains of HSV, HSV-1 (commonly referred to as cold sores), and HSV-2, which typically causes genital herpes. Although HSV-1 can potentially lead to genital herpes, in the case of oral sex.
According to the World Health Organization, about 67% of people under the age of fifty, have HSV-1, while 13% have HSV-2.
While both of these viruses are lifelong, the majority of people who have them are asymptomatic. While both strains of HSV can be contracted from a person who is asymptomatic, the risk is higher if they have active sores.
If you do have HSV, this is nothing to be embarrassed about! Outbreaks can typically be managed and prevented through medication and/or lifestyle choices.
Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and Syphilis
These are the three most common reportable STIs. They’re often grouped together, because while they are easily treatable with antibiotics when left untreated they can lead to fertility issues and other life-threatening side effects. Gonorrhoea and Chlamydia often can be transmitted together.
Potential symptoms of Gonorrhea and Chlamydia are yellow discharge, frequent or painful peeing, and vaginal or rectal bleeding (outside of your period). A transmission of Syphilis may cause a small painless ulcer on the genitals, followed by a rash on the hands and feet, and potential flu-like symptoms.
It’s important to seek treatment even if symptoms have subsided, as the virus is still latent in the body.
Much of the time, these infections may not cause symptoms, which is why it’s important to be tested at a time interval that makes sense for you and your health.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), is an infection that causes a person’s white blood cells to attack the body’s immune system. If left untreated, overtime HIV may lead to AIDS, or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. As of 2018, approximately 37.9 million people were living with HIV/AIDS globally.
The impact of HIV/AIDS greatly varies depending on what healthcare is accessible to an individual. Thanks to modern advances in medicine, many people with HIV are able to live long, thriving lives (and yes have sex) through the use of medications that keep their viral load low.
As for prevention, condoms can be very effective at preventing the transmission of HIV.
Some people may not show any symptoms at the initial onset of the virus, but this is also when it is most contagious. After that, they may exhibit flu-like symptoms, weight loss, diarrhea, and a difficult time fighting off other infections.
Remember, STIs are normal, and not something to be afraid or ashamed of. The most important things when navigating STIs and sexual health are education, awareness, and communication.
Natasha’s passion for reproductive health began at age fourteen, when she was present for the birth of her youngest sister. Her incredible experiences as a birth doula, has given her hands on insight into the magical realm of birth, pregnancy, and all things in between. Her role as a birth worker, is her way of serving as an activist. She uses writing as a key educational tool for creating change in how we view reproductive health as a whole.