Sexually transmitted infections, otherwise known as STIs, and formerly, STDs, are exactly what they sound: infectious diseases spread from person to person through intimate contact. When we hear the abbreviation STI, we often conjure images of terrible diseases that leave us fearful of our partner’s sexual history. While STIs are extremely serious and dangerous to a person’s health, they can be easily preventable during any sexual contact. The more you understand about the types of STIs, how common they are, and what treatment is possible, the easier it is to protect yourself against them.
One of the most common and serious STIs that is important to be informed about is the Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV can be spread throughs skin-to-skin contact such as vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Thirty types of HPV are spread sexually, and it is reported that half to almost every sexually active person will have an HPV infection at least one point in their lifetime. While this may sound frightening, many HPV infections usually have no symptoms, but the body can treat the infection on its own. Those infections that have symptoms often come in the form of genital warts, which can vary in size, shape, color, and even amount.
Other infections can lead to cancers of the mouth, penis, and cervix (cervix cancer is the most common-and harmful-cancers found in women). Luckily, a vaccine is available that can prevent HPV in both men and women. It is recommended that women aged 11-26, and men 11-21 receive this vaccine as it also helps prevents genital warts, and cancers. If you have not received this vaccine yet, it is highly recommended that you talk to your doctor about it soon. The HPV vaccine is a series of three shots given over the course of 6 months. These shots are the best protection to both girls and boys that receive all three doses, as they help develop an immune response. It is even better for a child to receive this vaccine when they are younger, as a better immune response can develop if the child is not sexually active yet.
Chlamydia is another common STI, as it is the most commonly reported bacterial STI in Canada and the United States. Chlamydia is typically spread through vaginal and anal sex, but it also can be spread through oral sex on occasion. Those who are infected with this disease will often have no visible no symptoms. Women who have symptoms can experience pain during urination, bleeding not associated with their period, and discolored discharge, while men with symptoms can experience pain during urination and a burning/itching sensation around the tip of the penis. It can take anywhere from a week to months for signs of chlamydia to show up after being infected, which can make it difficult for a person to even know they are infected. Chlamydia is easily treatable with antibiotics, and to aid further spreading the infection, it is recommended that those infected avoid having any sexual contact until fully cured, which is often seven days after beginning the antibiotics.
About 55,000 new cases of syphilis are reported annually. Like most STIs, this infection is passed along through vaginal, anal, and oral sex. However, syphilis can also be passed on through kissing if there is a sore present on the mouth. Unlike other STIs, syphilis comes in four different stages. In the earlier stages, syphilis is present typically through a sore present on the genitals, or mouth area and can be treated with antibiotics. Later stages of syphilis can lead to rashes on the hands and feet, which may also be treated with antibiotics.
However, the third stage of syphilis typically will have no symptoms and people can go untreated for years with it; those who go untreated can reach stage four of syphilis, which can cause damage to the nervous system, the heart, brain, and even sometimes in severe cases, untreated syphilis can lead to death. It is extremely important that if you think you may be infected with syphilis, you get treated immediately as to avoid any serious damage being done to your body. Though only about 15% of those infected with Syphilis will reach the fourth stage of the infection, anyone who carries this disease untreated is at risk. At all stages, there is a form of treatment; in stages one and two, a single injection of long acting Benzathine penicillin G will cure the disease, whereas in the later stages, three doses of long acting Benzathine penicillin G over the course of three weeks will cure syphilis. However, though there is a treatment, these injections and other antibiotic options will not cure any harmful effects or damage done to the body in the later stages of syphilis. A person should avoid any sexual contact until all sores are completely healed on the body, or they run the risk of infecting their partner.
When one thinks of potential STIs, herpes are often a common one to come to mind. One out of six people are infected with this STI. Herpes are a viral infection that can cause painful blisters around the mouth, penis, anus, or vaginal area. Unlike most STIs, to spread herpes all it can take is skin-to-skin contact with another infected person. Since herpes are a viral infection, there is no cure for the disease; instead, those infected can continuously take medication to control the symptoms, but will always have the virus.
Though being informed on varying sexually transmitted infections can make them sound even scarier, it is important to be in order to take the appropriate precautions to protect yourself from them. Using a condom or dental dam when having sex, especially when you may not know your partner’s full sexual past, is always safe as it protects you against most STIs. However, in infections like herpes, contraceptives may not fully protect you from diseases that can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. Therefore, you should always be open and honest with any sexual partners about any possible intimate contact you have had with an infected person. Finally, you should get checked regularly, even when you may be in a monogamous relationship. Your doctor will be able to test for certain infections through a urine sample, while most health clinics can offer testing for other STIs. While sexually transmitted infections are an unfortunate risk of being sexually active, by being smart and proactive in your sexual health, you can remain clean and healthy while still enjoying the benefits of sexual activity.