April is STI Awareness Month
What are sexually transmitted infections (STIs)?
All STDs can be prevented and treated, and most can be cured.
The most effective way to prevent STIs is not to have sex. If you do decide to have sex, you and your partner should both be tested for STIs before you engage in sexual activity. Before engaging in sexual activity, have a conversation with your partner.
The CDC says individuals and healthcare providers can implement the Talk.Test.Treat. strategy into their sexual health routine by doing the following:
- Talk openly with partner(s) and healthcare providers about sex and STDs.
- Get tested. Because many STDs have no symptoms, getting tested is the only way to know for sure if you have an infection.
- If you test positive for an STD, work with your doctor to get the correct treatment. Some STDs can be cured with the right medication. Those that aren’t curable can be treated.
Common STI Questions
Is there a difference between an STD and STI?
In the very technical sense, yes. “STD” stands for Sexual Transmitted Disease. “STI” stands for Sexually Transmitted Infection.
A disease typically signifies a more advanced condition or infection and may carry an associated stigma, which is why there has been an effort to shift the term to infection. Regardless of what you call them, it’s important to know that both STDs and STIs need to be screened for and treated.
Is it true that some STDs have no symptoms at all?
Yes, some STIs can be present without symptoms and others may have delayed symptoms. For example, gonorrhea and chlamydia can be present without any symptoms. Similarly, syphilis initially presents as a painless ulcer which if it is located inside the vagina may go unrecognized. Other sexually-transmitted viruses like human papilloma virus (HPV) or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can take weeks, months, or years for symptoms to develop. This is why screening for STIs even when a patient doesn’t have symptoms is so important.
If I receive treatment for an STD does that mean I can’t catch it again in the future?
Unfortunately, not. If you are exposed and treated for an STD, you are susceptible again after treatment. For the bacterial infections (i.e. gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis), treatment will include a short-course of antibiotics and follow-up testing to confirm the treatment worked. Certain STDs like herpes and HIV are lifelong infections and require ongoing treatment.
I see bumps “down there.” How do I know if it’s just an ingrown hair or something serious, like herpes?
If you shave/wax, you may be more prone to ingrown hairs. If you’ve recently shaved, and are noticing one bump that isn’t terribly uncomfortable, it could simply be an ingrown hair. A first herpes outbreak tends to exquisitely painful, with larger lesions appearing inside the vulva and around the vagina. Subsequent outbreaks tend to be smaller but are still generally painful. Herpes lesions will change over time and may weep a clear fluid. If you are concerned, come see us!
I’m experiencing pain during sex, does that mean I have an STD?
Possibly. Often, pelvic pain is not related to an STD. Pelvic pain during sex is very common and may be related to other conditions including endometriosis, cysts, or tension. Your anatomy – how your uterus is positioned in your pelvis – may also make intercourse painful during certain positions. Severe infections with gonorrhea of chlamydia or an active herpes outbreak can also make intercourse painful.
How often should I get tested for an STD?
It ultimately depends on your sexual behaviors. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that any sexually active female under the age of 25 receive at least annual screenings for gonorrhea and chlamydia because a majority of cases in the United States occur in this age group.
If you’re entering a relationship with a new sexual partner, it may also be a good idea for both partners to get screened to ensure a “clean bill of health” before any activity.
It’s also important to know that there are two parts to testing and screening: swabs and blood tests. Swabs will test for things like gonorrhea, chlamydia or HPV. Other STDs including HIV, hepatitis, and syphilis must be tested through blood work.
Does being on the pill protect me from STDs?
No! Let me repeat: No. Birth control in any form (i.e. the pill, patches, IUDs) only works to prevent pregnancy. Birth control does not provide any protection again STDs. Barrier contraceptives (i.e. condoms/dental dams) can protect against some STDs, but are not 100% effective.
Is a cold sore an STD?
Yes and no.
Cold sores come from the herpes virus and there are two strains that can cause cold sores: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 is very common among the population and is often not obtained through sexual contact (many people are exposed when they are young from kissing older relatives, etc) and usually causes cold sores on the mouth.
HSV-2 is less common and traditionally obtained through sexual activity (oral, vaginal, anal intercourse) and usually produces sores on the gentials. You can, however, get HSV-1 on your genitals and HSV-2 on your mouth and regardless of how you obtained either strain: both can be transmitted through kissing and sexual contact.
Can STDs be transmitted through oral sex?
Yes! You can be at-risk of both giving and receiving an STD through oral sex. You can develop infections of the throat with gonorrhea and chlamydia as well as sores around the mouth with herpes.
My vaginal discharge is a different color than normal, does that mean I have an STD?
Not always, there are many reasons for vaginal discharge! Discolored or increased discharge can be a symptom of a non-sexually transmitted infection (such as a yeast infection) or could even be due to hormonal changes. It’s important to consider your recent sexual activity to better understand if this symptom could be linked to an STD and if you have any concerns it is always best to call your doctor.
Get Yourself Tested
GYT: Get Yourself Tested is a campaign created by the CDC, encouraging young people to get tested and treated for STDs and HIV to protect their health and that of their partners. STDs affect people of all ages, yet these diseases take a particularly heavy toll on young people.
If you are sexually active, getting tested for STDs is one of the most important things you can do to protect your health! Have an open and honest conversation with your healthcare provider about your sexual history and STD testing. This will help them understand what STD tests you may need.
Studies have shown that many teens don’t talk to their healthcare providers about issues of sex and sexuality during their annual health visits, sometimes because they are afraid their parents might find out. If you don’t feel comfortable talking with your regular healthcare provider about STDs, visit one of the many clinics that provide confidential testing that is free or low cost. For ways to prepare for your doctor’s visit, check out this guide.