There’s no life without sex. Literally, sex is the most direct link between us and our ancestors. Sexual contact can be a beautiful thing, a form of physical communication between consenting adults. But sex isn’t all roses and closeness and intimacy and Barry White songs. Sexual encounters can also lead to the spread of a wide array of curable and incurable infections and diseases. Some of those diseases are as old as humanity itself. What are STIs? Who’s at risk of getting them? Are they curable? And what can you do to stay clear of them? Let’s bust some myths in this guide to STIs.
What are STIs and STDs?
Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), and venereal diseases are umbrella terms that describe infections that get passed through sexual contact. They are caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites. When we think of sex, many of us think of penetration. This might lead some to believe that infections require penetration to be transmitted. An important point to stress right at the beginning is that different STIs get passed in different ways. Some STIs, such as herpes and HPV, don’t require penetration or even oral sex.
Who is most affected by STDs?
The numbers of STD cases around the world are astounding. According to the World Health Organization, more than 1 million sexual diseases are transmitted every day worldwide. Most of the people infected don’t have any symptoms, which leads to two problems: (a) without diagnosis people aren’t treating their condition, possibly leaving it to worsen. And (b) without knowing they have it, people don’t know how critical it is for them to practice safe sex, therefore spreading the disease further.
When focusing on the U.S., the picture doesn’t get any more comforting. The CDC reports record breaking numbers of people with STDs year after year, and estimates that 1-in-5 Americans have a sexually transmitted infection. The current American healthcare system is known to be less accommodating and accessible for different racial and ethnic groups, and it is no surprise that these same groups, including Hispanic, Black, and Alaskan Native communities, are the ones most affected by STDs. For example, African-American women are almost 20% likelier to have genital herpes than white women.
Another group disproportionately affected by STIs is adolescent teens and young adults. In 2018, 15 to 24 year-olds accounted for nearly half of all new STIs! This is especially alarming considering the fact that they only represent 25% of the sexually active population. This, in part, speaks to a lack of good communication surrounding sex and puberty. Talking to your child about sexuality can be difficult, but it is incredibly necessary. Your child will eventually learn these things – through friends, siblings, or TV shows. Talking with your child is the only way to be sure that the right information is conveyed at the right time.
What are the common STIs?
There are many different types of STIs, broadly categorized into curable and incurable. Six of the most common ones are:
Human papillomavirus (HPV)
90% of the time, HPV will heal on its own within two years without leaving a mark. When it doesn’t go away, it can cause rough bumps (warts) around the genitals and even cancer. HPV is most often associated with cervical cancer, but it has also been linked to anal, vaginal, vulvar, penile, and oropharyngeal cancers. This STI, the most common in the U.S., spreads though the touching of skin during any type of vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
While there’s no treatment for the papillomavirus itself, there are two important things to keep in mind:
- The HPV vaccine is safe and recommended for everyone, from preteens to 26-year-olds (and in some cases beyond).
- Health problems caused by HPV, such as genital warts, are treatable.
- Routine check-ups can help females detect and treat problems with the cervix before they deteriorate.
Chlamydia and gonorrhea: Chlamydia and gonorrhea are both very common STDs. They can be transmitted though vaginal, anal, or oral sex, which is why the CDC recommends sexually active males and females get screened for them.
The bad news is that even in asymptomatic females, these infections can cause permanent damage to the reproductive system if left untreated. The good news is that chlamydia and gonorrhea are curable. The right treatment will defeat the infection but will not reverse the damage already done.
Herpes is very common in the U.S. It is estimated that there are more than a half a million new infections every year. There are two types of viruses that cause herpes: HSV-1 and HSV-2. Type 1 can cause oral herpes that may result in cold sores or fever blisters around the mouth, although most people who have the virus are asymptomatic and unaware of their condition. HSV-1 is unique on this list because most people get it during childhood or adolescence through non-sexual contact with saliva. Think: sharing a cup of water. HSV-1 can spread from mouth to mouth and from the mouth to the genitals through oral sex.
“Trich” is a common STD caused by a parasite that affects females more than males and older females more than young. About 70% of the people who have trich are asymptomatic and unaware of their infection. The parasite can travel from vagina to penis and vice versa, and also from vagina to vagina.
According to the CDC, trichomoniasis is the most common curable STD. It is usually treated with antibiotics, which are safe even if you’re pregnant.
In 1981, a growing number of young and seemingly healthy gay men abruptly died from pneumonia. By 1982, scientists labeled the illness as AIDS, and in the following year identified the virus that causes it as HIV. Many things have changed over time in medical, political, and social aspects. Perhaps most importantly, over the years, AIDS has turned from a death sentence to a chronic disease that can be suppressed (although not completely cured). Testing for HIV is very easy. All that’s needed is a simple blood sample, oral fluid, or urine test.
What precautions can I take?
Preventing a health problem from happening is always easier than treating it. That’s true for anything, from a heat rash to hypertension, and from diabetes to STIs. According to the CDC, here are some ways you can protect yourself:
- Use protection: Correct and consistent use of male latex condoms, female condoms, and dental dams are highly effective in reducing STD transmission. Use protection every time you have anal, vaginal, or oral sex.
- Get checked regularly: If you are sexually active and are not in a monogamous relationship, make sure to get tested regularly. Early detection can make the difference between a quick recovery and health complications.
- Be honest with your healthcare provider: Don’t leave your conditions to worsen. Does something feel different and strange about your genitals? Contact your health provider right away. Antidote Health’s clinicians are certified to treat various sexually transmitted diseases. Click here to contact a clinician with little to no waiting time.