April is STI Awareness Month. Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), also known as Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) or Venereal Diseases (VD) are infections that are passed on from one person to another through sexual contact. The infection can be passed on through vaginal intercourse, oral sex, and anal sex. Although “STD” is the most commonly used term for the spread of infections through sexual contact, people who develop STI may not experience symptoms.
Who gets STI and Which Ones are Common?
Nearly 20 million people in the United States get an STI each year. These infections affect women and men of all backgrounds and economic levels. But half of all new infections are in young people 15 to 24 years old.
Common STI are:
- Genital Herpes
- Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)
- Pelvic Inflammatory Disease
Descriptive information on each of the above infections, and more, can be found in the STD section of the CDC website.
How STI’s Affect Women:
Women often have more serious health problems from STIs than men:
- Chlamydia and gonorrhea, left untreated, increase the risk of chronic pelvic pain and life-threatening ectopic pregnancy, and can cause infertility.
- Untreated syphilis in pregnant women results in infant death 40% of the time.
- Women have a higher risk than men of getting an STI during unprotected vaginal sex. Unprotected anal sex puts women at even more risk for getting an STI than unprotected vaginal sex.
How do you get STI’s?
Many STIs are spread through contact with infected body fluids such as blood, vaginal fluids, semen or saliva. They can also be spread through contact with infected skin or mucous membranes, such as sores in the mouth. One can be exposed to infected body fluids and skin through vaginal, anal or oral sex.
Symptoms or Signs of an STI:
There are many different STIs and there are many signs of having one, but sometimes, there are no signs at all. When STIs do produce symptoms, they usually develop on the genital area. Sexual partners may also experience symptoms such as:
- unusual discharge from the penis, vagina or anus
- pain during sex or urination
- sores, blisters, ulcers, warts or rashes in the genital area
- itchiness or irritation in the genital area
- persistent diarrhea
- fever or flu-like symptoms
- abnormal or unusual vaginal bleeding, especially after having sex
- pain in the scrotum or testicles
- lumps and bumps on the genitals.
Remember that many people who have an STI do not develop any symptoms and may not be aware they have an infection that can be passed on to their sexual partners, which is why preventive methods such as the use of condoms and dental dams are so important.
Ask your doctor about getting tested for STIs. Your doctor can tell you what test(s) you may need and how it is done.
STI testing, or screening, can include:
- Pelvic and physical exam. Your doctor looks for signs of infection, such as warts, rashes, or discharge.
- Blood test.
- Urine test.
- Fluid or tissue sample. Your doctor or nurse uses a cotton swab to take fluid or discharge from an infected place on your body. The fluid is looked at under a microscope or sent to a lab for testing.
What treatment is there for STI’s?
Many STIs are easily treated once they are diagnosed. Treatments for the different types of infections can include:
- bacteria – (including chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis) require treatment with antibiotics (either one high dose or a series of antibiotics)
- parasites – (including pubic lice and scabies) require treatment with medicated shampoos
- viruses – (including genital herpes, HIV, hepatitis B and human papillomavirus (HPV)) do not have a cure. In most cases, there are treatments to help control the symptoms.
If a person has unprotected sex with a person who has an STI, he or she is at high risk of catching that infection. It is recommended that a person who has engaged in unsafe sex talk to his or her doctor or sexual health service about having a check-up, even if he or her does not have any signs or symptoms of an STI.
Can STI’s be cured?
For some STIs, treatment may involve taking medicine by mouth or getting a shot. For other STIs that can’t be cured, like herpes or HIV/AIDS, medicines can help control the condition.
How do you prevent an STI?
If you do have sex, lower your risk of getting an STI with the following steps:
- Get vaccinated. There are vaccines to protect against HPV and hepatitis B.
- Use condoms. Condoms are the best way to prevent STIs when you have sex. Because a man does not need to ejaculate (come) to give or get some STIs, make sure to put the condom on before the penis touches the vagina, mouth, or anus. Other methods of birth control, like birth control pills, shots, implants, or diaphragms, will not protect you from STIs.
- Get tested. Be sure you and your partner are tested for STIs. Talk to each other about the test results before you have sex.
- Be monogamous. Having sex with just one partner can lower your risk for STIs. After being tested for STIs, be faithful to each other. That means that you have sex only with each other and no one else.
- Limit your number of sex partners. Your risk of getting STIs goes up with the number of partners you have.
- Do not douche. Douching removes some of the normal bacteria in the vagina that protects you from infection. This may increase your risk of getting STIs.
- Do not abuse alcohol or drugs. Drinking too much alcohol or using drugs increases risky behavior and may put you at risk of sexual assault and possible exposure to STIs.
Always remember that anyone who is sexually active can catch an STI.
Also, Remember the Health Power motto: Knowledge + Action = Power!