A sexually-transmitted disease or infection is any disease that can be transmitted through sexual contact, including vaginal, anal or oral sex. Some STIs can also be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact or even kissing. There are over 20 main STDs, and STDs such as HPV are similar to the flu because there are over 40 strains.
The idea of contracting an STI is certainly a scary one, and it’s one reason why you should be so vigilant about safer sex practices. While many STIs can be cleared up with a round of antibiotics prescribed by your doctor, some infections, including HPV, can cause cancers of the cervix or throat that have long-lasting effects.
Furthermore, a partner’s clean STI panel doesn’t mean that you’re free from infections. Plus, a lack of HPV test for men means that you getting tested is the only way to know whether you and your partner may be infected.
This is why it’s so important to take steps to prevent STD transmission, but it’s also important to be on the lookout for symptoms and to go to your reproductive health provider for testing at the first sign of any symptoms. There’s no room to gamble with your sex life when it comes to STIs!
STI SYMPTOMS TO LOOK FOR
It’s much easier to set your mind at ease when you know what STI symptoms might indicate an infection, and it also helps you to know when to contact a medical professional if you’ve got multiple STI symptoms.
- Chlamydia: burning while peeing, discharge, spotting between periods, pain in abdomen or back, nausea, fever and pain during sex; may present no symptoms at all
- Herpes can cause small red bumps, discharge, headache, muscle pain, pain during urination, itching or burning in genital area
- Gonorrheacauses burning pain while urinating, yellow or bloody discharge, spotting, pain during sex and heavier periods
- Hepatitis Bcauses fever, headaches, muscle aches, exhaustion, decreased appetite, upset stomach, discolored urine and bowel movements, stomach pain and yellowing of skin
- HIV presents symptoms similar to a cold such as sore throat, tiredness, fever and swollen lymph nodes in the early stages; later-stage symptoms including weight loss, night sweats, shortness of breath, frequent infections and chronic diarrhea
- HPV causes small and painless bumps (genital warts), itching in the genital area or pain during sex; may present no symptoms
- Pubic lice (crabs) can be identified by itching accompanied by eggs or lice in the pubic area
- Syphilisstarts as a sore in the infected area, becomes a rash with potential fever and swollen lymph nodes, causes lack of coordination, numbness and even blindness in the third stage; may present no symptoms after the first stage
- Trichomoniasiscauses abnormal vaginal discharge, typically with an odor, pain while peeing and itching
You’ll notice that many signs of an infection are similar to the cold or flu, so it can be easy to confuse an STI symptom with something else. This is why routine STD testing is so important.
There is one more infection that is often lumped in with STIs: Bacterial vaginosis. It’s not something your partner has that he can give to you, but it does sometimes occur after sexual activity. Douching can also lead to bacterial vaginosis.
BV is a vaginal infection caused by an imbalance of bacteria in the vagina. A common symptom is abnormal discharge, but you may have no symptoms at all. Your doctor will prescribe antibiotics to combat BV if he or she believes you have the infection.
WHAT IF THERE’S NO STI SYMPTOM?
Unfortunately, not every sexually transmitted infection comes with apparent symptoms. In fact, Columbia University states that the “majority” of STIs are asymptomatic, which means they offer not symptoms at all.
Therefore, you could have contracted herpes, HPV or chlamydia without developing any signs of the infection. However, just because STDs may be asymptomatic doesn’t mean you shouldn’t test for them. It’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to having no STI symptom. STDs can still wreak havoc on your body. HPV, for example, can show up during your routine Pap exam as abnormal cells, according to the CDC. An additional HPV test looks for the infection specifically.
Although there’s no treatment for HPV aside from letting it run its course while your immune system kicks into gear, but the CDC explains procedures that can remove those abnormal cells to prevent them from spreading. However, HPV can lead to cervical cancer or even throat cancer when left unchecked, which is why routine STD testing is a must for any sexually active person.
Your doctor will recommend vigilance after any unprotected oral, vaginal or anal sex, even if there’s no sign of STI symptoms.
WHERE TO GET TESTED
If you suspect you might have STI symptoms or you want to get tested because it’s been more than a year between tests or there’s a new sexual partner on the horizon, it’s time to head to the clinic or hospital. You have a few options when it comes to testing as recommended by the New York Department of Health:
- A reproductive health clinic such as Planned Parenthood
- Your OB/GYN
- Your primary care doctor
- Independent STI testing centers
Planned Parenthood and similar sexual health clinics offer payment options and free services to qualifying patients, while your health insurance may cover STD testing service from your doctor. Be sure to ask when making an appointment if payment is a concern.
HELP! I’VE GOT AN STI
Hopefully, a positive STD test is accompanied by appropriate bedside manner, medication and guidance from your medical professional. If that isn’t the case, we recommend getting a second opinion as soon as possible.
However, having an STI isn’t a life-or-death sentence anymore — even if it’s HIV! Procedures exist that will enable your doctor to remove abnormal cells caused by HPV, squash chlamydia, gonorrhoea, trichomoniasis and syphilis with antibiotics, treat pubic lice with with shampoo and help you manage symptoms of viruses that cannot be treated with other methods.
It’s important to remember that having an STI doesn’t necessarily make you unclean, undesirable or otherwise “damaged.” There’s no room for slut shaming here!
In fact, STI prevalence is quite high even if many people have no STI symptoms. According to the Office of Womans Health, 19 million new infections emerge every year in the United States alone (this includes both men and women). HPV is the most common STI according to the CDC’s most-recent annual report on STIs and as much as 75% of the sexually-active population will contract HPV during their lifetime.
This risk increases if you engage in casual sex or invite multiple people into your relationship. We recommend trying threesomes or one night stands if you’re adventurous, but you should know the risk!
Most of those infections occur among people ages 19 to 24 years old. As a woman, the health risks tend to be greater than men with STIs. What all of this means to you is that you’re in good company. You probably know someone who has had HPV or another STI, and you shouldn’t experience shame or judgment about your STD status — especially from yourself!
Finally, contracting an STI doesn’t necessarily mean that your partner has cheated. You may have STI symptoms from an infection that came from your ex or his ex before you were together. Sometimes, STDs can fail to show symptoms or show up on tests immediately. That’s why doctors recommend you get tested for HIV between 25 days and three months after exposure to the infection. Although HIV shows up on the test for most people after a month, it can take up to three months for 97% of tests to return positive. False negative test results can happen in the meantime.
HIV can remain dormant in your body for up to 10 years before symptoms begin to appear according to the Office of Women’s Health.
Whether your test comes back negative and you breathe a sigh of relief or your doctor talks to you about treatment options after discovering an STI symptom, an STI scare will likely result in renewed interest in safer sex practices. Fortunately, using a condom is an easy and affordable way to drastically cut down the chances of transmitting infections such as HIV and HPV, which is why the CDC recommends using condoms during vaginal and anal sex. Flavored condoms also make it easier for you to protect yourself while giving oral sex.
You can also use a dental dam or a condom cut down the side as a barrier during oral sex to reduce transmission risk of HPV, herpes and other STIs when you’re on the receiving end of oral sex.
Additionally, if you’re 26 years old or younger, you can talk to your doctor about the HPV vaccine. Males under the age of 21 can also get vaccinated and parents of children as young as 11 years old should consider having their children vaccinated.
The CDC’s annual STD surveillance report for 2013 details a significant decrease in the prevalence of the four types of HPV the vaccine prevents decreased 6% between 2003 and 2006, when the vaccine first became available. The vaccine targets the two types of HPV that cause 70% of all cervical cancer and another two types of HPV that cause 90% of all genital warts according to the CDC.
Finally, consider using lube when you have sex. Not only does lube make it feel fantastic, but it prevents tiny abrasions in the vagina or anus, which can increase the likelihood of spreading STIs.
Prevention, monitoring, testing and treatment for STI ensures you have a great sex life while protecting your health and the health of your sexual partners!