Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)

STIs are sometimes called STDs, or sexually transmitted diseases.

STIs include:

  • Chlamydia
  • Gonorrhea
  • Hepatitis B
  • Herpes
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Molluscum Contagiosum
  • Pubic Lice (“Crabs”)
  • Scabies
  • Syphilis
  • Trichomoniasis

Who gets STIs?

Anyone who has had sexual contact can get an STI. Men and women of all ages, regions, ethnic backgrounds, and economic levels can get STI. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there are about 20 million new STIs diagnosed every year in the United States and people between 15-24 years of age have half of them.

Anyone at any age can get an STI; however, males and females who have sex with multiple partners, or have sex with a partner that has many sexual partners, and gay and bisexual men are at a greater risk than others.

What are the symptoms of an STI?

Many STIs may not cause any symptoms. Symptoms vary for each STI, but they include sores or blisters on or around the genital area or in the mouth, pain or burning during urination, unusual discharge from the penis or vagina, itching, swelling, or pain in or around the penis or vagina. If you have any of these symptoms, you could have an STI, but they might also not mean anything serious. Talk to your health care provider right away and get checked out to be safe.

How are STIs spread?

Many STIs are spread through contact with infected body fluids such as blood, vaginal fluids, or semen. They can also be spread through contact with infected skin or mucous membranes, such as sores in the mouth. You may be exposed to infected body fluids and skin through vaginal, anal or oral sex. Anal sex is very risky because it often causes bleeding. Sharing needles or syringes for drug use, ear piercing, tattooing, etc. can also expose you to infected fluids.

Most STIs are only spread through direct sexual contact with an infected person. However, pubic lice and scabies can be spread through close personal contact with an infected person, or with infested clothes, sheets, or towels.

How can I prevent getting an STI?

The best way to prevent getting an STI is to not have sex. Some STIs can’t be cured, so you should always practice safer sex, or find ways to be intimate in a romantic relationship without having sex. This means preventing the passing of body fluids such as blood, semen, and vaginal fluids, and avoiding direct oral, anal, or genital contact (by using a latex condom).

If you do decide to have sex, you should:

  • Use condoms 100% of the time. You need to make sure that you use a new latex condom (or dental dam) correctly every time you have oral, anal, or vaginal sex. If you’re allergic to latex, use a polyurethane male or female condom.
  • Use a water-base lubricant with condoms. The lubricant will lessen the chance of the condom breaking. Never use lubricants that contain oil or fat, such as petroleum jelly or cooking oil. These products weaken latex and can cause the condom to break.
  • Limit the number of people you have sex with. The more partners you have, the greater your risk of being exposed to an STI.
  • Choose partners who have not had sex with many other partners, and who will have sex only with you while you’re together. You should ask your partner(s) if he/she has an STI, has been exposed to one, or has physical symptoms of an STI.
  • NOT have sex with anyone that has signs of an STI (sores, rashes, or discharge from the genital area).
  • Have your partner get checked out for STI before you have sex. Keep in mind that tests for sexually transmitted infections don’t pick up all STIs.

Other ways to prevent getting an STI include:

  • Don’t inject drugs or have sex with someone who has
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs, since they can make you more likely to take chances with sex
  • Get the Hepatitis B and HPV vaccinations

What should I do if I think I have a STI?

If you have any symptoms of an STI, any unexplained problems, or you think you may have been exposed to an STI (even if you don’t have symptoms), see your health care provider right away and get tested. You can’t correctly test or diagnose yourself with an STI; only your health care provider can do that.

Can STIs be treated?

Most STIs can be treated. The earlier you get treatment, the better, because more serious problems can develop if you wait. Whenever possible, treatment is given in a single dose, but sometimes you need to take medication over a period of time.

Are STI tests always accurate?

No test for any STI is 100% accurate. Some STIs don’t show up right away and some STI don’t have tests, so they may be missed. It could take an infection anywhere from a couple of days to a few years to show up in testing. If you think you have an STI, get tested. If you test negative, you may have to go back again to get re-tested. Even if you test negative, keep practicing safe sex. Talk to your health care provider about speaking with a counselor if you have concerns.

What about confidentiality?

What you tell your health care provider about your sexual behavior and exposure to STIs is confidential. For STIs, your health care provider can’t talk about anything you tell him/her, unless he/she seriously believes that you are a danger to yourself or others, or that you aren’t able to make decisions on your own. So your parents, teachers, partners, or friends can’t find out any information from your health care provider about STIs. Unfortunately parents do find out sometimes because the insurance company may send an EOB (Explanation of Benefits) statement to a parent who is the subscriber (of the health insurance). So discuss this issue with your primary care provider. In any case, you may find it very helpful to talk to your parents about your health and your worries. This can be a scary time for you and it’s always good to have an adult to talk to.

I’ve been diagnosed with an STI, now what?

  • You need to tell all sex partner(s) who may have been exposed. Try to get them to get tested. If you feel that you can’t tell your partner(s), talk to your health care provider. He/she will help you to tell your partner(s) or will help you find another way to let your partner(s) know he/she has been exposed.
  • You and your current sexual partner(s) need to get treated at the same time to prevent passing the infection back and forth.
  • Take all of your medicine even if you feel better.
  • Schedule a follow-up exam with your health care provider after you’ve finished treatment.
  • Don’t have sex again until your health care provider says you’re cured.
  • Consider meeting with a counselor if you’re concerned or upset about having an STI. Your health care provider can help you.

If I’ve had an STI, can I get it again?

Yes. You can get the same STI again if you have sex – especially if you have sex without a condom. You can also have more than one STI at a time. Also, some STIs aren’t curable, so you can still have the STI even if you’ve received treatment.

What serious problems can STIs cause?

If STIs aren’t treated, they can have serious side effects, such as:

  • Pain
  • Worsening infection
  • Infertility (being unable to have children)
  • Increased risk for some types of cancer
  • Brain damage
  • Heart disease
  • Birth defects
  • Death

What is the relationship between STIs and pregnancy?

Pregnant women with STIs may miscarry or may pass on their STI to their baby. STIs can also cause low birth weight and premature babies. Babies with infected mothers can have problems such as pneumonia, eye infections, and brain damage.

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