According to the CDC, nearly 20 million Americans contract a sexually transmitted infection (STI) every year. Over half of new cases occur in young people, many who don’t know they have infections because they’ve never been screened. Commonly spread STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhea often present no symptoms, which is why public health officials recommend that sexually active people get regular STI tests even in the absence of symptoms. STI tests are available at urgent care centers, hospitals and public clinics like Planned Parenthood. So what can you do to keep yourself safe?
Prevention is the Key
STIs can be prevented through a combination of approaches:
Condoms – Male latex condoms are recommended, but non–latex options are also available to those who have latex allergies. Keep in mind, though, that the breakage rate for non–latex condoms is slightly higher.
Vaccinations – You can’t get vaccinated for most STIs, but there are vaccines available for HPV and hepatitis B. It is best to get the HPV shots before becoming sexually active.
Fewer Partners – Keeping fewer sexual partners (or one partner in a monogamous relationship) can reduce STI risk. Ensure that your partners have been tested and speak candidly with them about staying safe.
Abstinence – While this option may not be for everyone, the most reliable way to avoid STIs is to abstain from sexual intercourse. Some people choose to practice periods of abstinence, or only outside of monogamous relationships.
And the best thing you can do? Get tested.
Symptoms & Testing
Generally speaking, an STI test is recommended whenever symptoms arise and whenever having unprotected sex. Common symptoms include itching, sores on or around the genitals, fluid discharge and a burning sensation during urination.
Screening guidelines depend on the STI, the person’s sexual activity and the person’s gender:
Chlamydia – Annual screening for sexually active women under 25 years old. Anyone after unprotected sex.
Gonorrhea – Annual screening for sexually active women under 25 years old. Pregnant women should be screened at least once, and throughout the pregnancy if they are at risk for gonorrhea.
Syphilis – At least annually for sexually active men who have sex with men (MSM). Screenings are also recommended for all pregnant women.
HIV – All adults should be tested for HIV at least once. People who have unprotected sex or take intravenous illicit drugs should be tested at least annually. Nearly 13% of Americans with HIV/AIDS are unaware of their infections due to lack of screening.
Screens often test for a combination of STIs at once.
If you test positive, treatment options will depend on the type of STI. Bacterial infections are generally treated with antibiotics, and viral infections can be managed (but not cured) through combination antiviral treatments.
Chlamydia & Gonorrhea – These infections often come together and are treated through antibiotics (ofloxacin and ciprofloxazin).
Syphilis – Usually accompanied by genital sores, this bacterial infection can be treated with penicillin (or an alternative antibiotic for people who are allergic).
Genital Herpes & Genital Warts – These are viral infections and usually go away on their own if your immune system is strong enough. But warts can also be treated with antiviral creams or removed manually, usually through freezing.
HIV/AIDS – HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, which can take years to develop. There is no cure, but researchers have made significant advances in recent years. AIDS care usually involves a “cocktail” of different antiviral drugs and immune boosters.
When in doubt, you can always discuss STI prevention, screening and care with your primary care physician. There are also plenty of hospitals, urgent care centers and free clinics where you can find the right resources for your needs.