STIs are common infections that are passed from one person to another usually through vaginal, oral, and anal sexual contact. Recent studies demonstrate that STI rates are on the rise in the United States, so what better time to get the facts straight and prevent the spread of these common infections?
- What is a sexually transmitted infection (STI)?
STIs are diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites that are spread through vaginal, anal, and oral sex or, in some cases, through intimate (skin to skin) contact.
- How do I know if I have an STI?
Common STI symptoms include abnormal vaginal discharge in women and penile discharge in men, bleeding between periods or after intercourse, pelvic pain, painful urination, and fluid filled bumps or ulcerations on genitals. However, STIs are often asymptomatic. It is still possible to spread an STI and to experience negative effects of an STI even without having symptoms.
- How often should I get tested for an STI?
Testing should be done anytime there are concerning symptoms or a known exposure. Routine screening for asymptomatic individuals is also advised. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends annual gonorrhea and chlamydia testing for sexually active individuals in the highest risk age group, those 15-24 years old. Everyone should be screened for HIV and hepatitis C at least once. Persons with new sexual partners, multiple sexual partners, those with a personal history or IV drug use or a partner who uses IV drugs, should be screened more frequently for all STIs. A full STI panel is recommended for all pregnant women. Screening for human papilloma virus (HPV) is added to all routine pap smears starting at age 30.
- I had an unprotected sexual encounter, what should I do now?
It’s a good idea to get tested for STIs after an episode of unprotected intercourse. The timing of the testing matters. Unless symptoms develop, wait two weeks from the encounter to present for initial testing. This is because it can take up to two weeks from the time of exposure for a chlamydia or gonorrhea test to become positive. Testing too early can result in false-negative results. It can take up to ninety days for a test to become positive after exposure to some viral infections, such as HIV. Therefore, a full STI panel should be performed again ninety days after the potential exposure. Meanwhile, encourage any sexual partner(s) to be tested and use condoms.
- Are STIs curable?
Chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis are cured with antibiotics. New medications to treat hepatitis C result in a cure for most people. There is currently no cure for HIV, HPV, herpes, and hepatitis B.
- I have recently been informed I have an STI, but my partner and I are monogamous. Could they have cheated on me?
That can be a difficult question to answer. Were you both tested prior to entering the relationship? Because STIs can be asymptomatic, if your partner wasn’t tested, they may have been exposed to an STI prior to your relationship and passed it on unknowingly. Similarly, some people exposed to herpes or HPV may go years before developing their first symptoms. And, a partner living with HSV 1, common oral cold sores, can transmit the virus during oral sex, resulting in genital herpes in their partner. It’s a good idea to discuss this with your provider who can help you better understand all these possibilities. In some cases, we never know when or by whom a person was exposed.
- Does having an STI affect my future fertility?
Chlamydia and gonorrhea are the most common causes of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can result in female infertility. PID is an infection of the reproductive organs caused by bacteria spreading from the vagina to the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. The infection may cause scar tissue that can fill the fallopian tubes resulting in an increased risk of ectopic pregnancy and infertility.
- Can condoms prevent the spread of all STIs?
Condoms are very effective at reducing the spread of STIs during vaginal and anal intercourse. Barriers also reduce transmission during oral sex, either a condom over the penis or a dental dam over the vulva of the individual receiving oral sex. However, condoms do not always cover the ulcerated lesions of herpes and syphilis or the genital warts caused by HPV. These conditions can be spread by intimate contact, such as touching genitals together or fingers moving back and forth between partners. STI prevention should also include immunization against HPV and hepatitis B. There are currently no vaccines to prevent HIV, herpes, or hepatitis C.
- Is it possible to get an STI from oral sex?
Yes, here are some examples: If a person has a sore caused by herpes or syphilis on their genitals, the individual giving that person oral sex can get oral herpes or contract syphilis. If the sores are on the mouth of the person giving oral sex, the STI can be transmitted to their partner’s genitals. If a person gives oral sex to someone with gonorrhea, they can get gonorrhea of the throat. The same is true for chlamydia, trichomoniasis, and HPV.
- Can I get an STI more than once?
Yes, you can be infected again by any curable STD, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis. After treatment, it’s important to make sure your sexual partner(s) were also tested and treated to prevent reinfection.
If you think you may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection or if you are looking for peace of mind, put getting tested on your "Stuff To Do" list. Contact North Atlanta Ob/Gyn today to schedule an appointment to get tested.