In the United States, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), affect young people ages 15 to 24 more than any other age group, accounting for about half of the 20 million STI cases reported each year.
Since 2013, the number of people affected by three common STIs, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis, has been increasing. April is STI Awareness Month, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have chosen the theme for their 2016 campaign to be Talk. Test. Treat. The CDC plans to use this theme throughout the month of April to focus on how the three actions of talking about, testing, and effectively treating STIs can help prevent further infection.
What is an STI?
A sexually transmitted infection (STI) is an infection that is passed from person to person through oral, vaginal, or anal sex. Common STIs include human papillomavirus (HPV), chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes and syphilis. HIV/AIDS, genital warts and public lice are other examples of STIs. STIs can cause a variety of symptoms, including a burning sensation when urinating, unusual discharge, pain in the lower abdomen, itching, blistering or sores. However, some STIs may not cause any noticeable symptoms, allowing the infection to be spread between sexual partners unnoticed. Many STIs, such as chlamydia and syphilis, can be treated by taking antibiotics, but others, such as HIV/AIDs and herpes, are lifelong. STIs that are treated in the early stages of infection are often easier to cure or manage.
It is important for sexual partners to communicate openly and honestly about their sexual histories. Discuss the last time each of you was tested for an STI and what the results were. Additionally, be honest about any current sexual partners you may have. Having multiple sexual partners increases your risk of contracting a STI. Using a condom can lower your risk of contracting certain STIs, but it is not a foolproof method of prevention. Be sure to talk to your partner about both the benefits and shortcomings of condom use.
Besides your sexual partner, it is also important to talk to your healthcare provider about STIs. Regular check-ups may not include STI testing, so if you are sexually active you should ask your healthcare provider to be tested. Additionally, ask your healthcare provider about STI vaccines that are available and if they are right for you.
Getting tested for STIs is important if you are sexually active. Because some STIs do not show symptoms, the only way to know if you have been infected is to get tested. Some STIs can be detected by a physical exam, while others may require a blood, urine, or discharge test. The CDC recommends sexually active women under the age of 25 should be tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea yearly. Additionally, sexually active men who have sex with other men should be tested for syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV yearly. Visit the CDC’s page for more information about STI screening recommendations.
If you have an STI, you should be treated as soon as possible. STIs can be controlled most effectively if they are identified and treated in the early stages of infection. Some STIs such as chlamydia, syphilis, and HPV can result in long term health consequences if they are not treated in a timely manner. These long term consequences include reproductive problems, fetal health problems during pregnancy, cancer, and an increased risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.
While some STIs can be cured with antibiotics, other infections are lifelong once contracted and require medication to control symptoms. If you are being treated for an STI, do not engage in sexual activity until treatment is complete. Encourage your partner to get tested as well, as they may also require treatment for the same STI.
In addition to talking and testing, there are other ways to prevent STIs. Although they do not completely prevent STI transmission, condoms can lower the risk of contracting STIs such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, HPV, and HIV when they are used correctly. One important thing to remember is that even if condoms are used consistently, there is still a chance they may tear or become displaced, which can allow for STI transmission.
Another way to lower the risk of contracting the STIs hepatitis B and HPV is to be vaccinated. Because hepatitis B and HPV are viruses, antibiotic treatments are not available. The vaccines for these STIs are the most effective way to prevent infection, are FDA approved, and can be administered at regular check-ups. Hepatitis B and HPV vaccines are especially important to receive because if left untreated, hepatitis B can negatively affect the liver, and HPV can lead to the development of certain cancers. The hepatitis B vaccine is a three dose vaccine recommended for children ages 11 through 15, and the HPV is a three dose vaccine recommended for children ages 11 or 12.
The only way to truly avoid getting an STI is to not engage in sexual activity. But, talking with your partner and healthcare provider about STI prevention, testing, and treatment can help lower your risk of being exposed to an STI. For more information about the CDC’s STI awareness month campaign, visit their page on the subject.