THE WHAT AND WHY ABOUT STI
Symptoms and treatments
STIs (sexually transmitted infections) also referred to as STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) is very common. More than half of sexually active people deal with an STI at some point.
What is an STI?
It’s an infection that’s passed through sexual contact, regardless of penetration. Some STIs can be completely cured, while others are more about managing symptoms.
How do you get STIs?
- Having unprotected sex (vaginal, oral, or anal) with someone who has an STI
- From genital touching
- Through inanimate objects such as sex toys
- Through breastfeeding a baby
Some STIs have no symptoms so it can be difficult to determine if you have an STI. But it’s important to note that STIs can still be spread even if there are no signs. The symptoms may also be mistaken for something else, like a UTI or yeast infection.
What are the types of STDs?
Below are some common STDs, their symptoms, and treatment:
A bacterial STI, chlamydia can occur in the vagina, cervix, penis, anus, urethra, eyes, or throat. There’s usually no symptoms but some people may experience burning while you pee and abnormal discharge. Treatment is a course of antibiotics. If left untreated, chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease or infertility.
Genital herpes is a viral infection that can cause blisters or ulcers in the genital area (vagina, vulva, penis, anus, and inside of your thighs). You likely see sores on your genitals or mouth, typically after 2-20 days of infection. They look like a group of blister-like bumps that are itchy and painful. Symptoms can show up as flu-like symptoms, like swollen glands, fever, chills, headache, or fatigue. However, the tricky thing is that symptoms aren’t always present, so it can be hard to diagnose until you're tested. A daily pill can prevent outbreaks.
Genital warts are caused by the Human Papillomavirus virus (HPV). It infects the skin, causing abnormal cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer. Your immune system typically clears it up on its own within a year or two.
Gonorrhea is a bacterial STI that often has no symptoms. Potential symptoms include pelvic pain, inflammation, and abnormal vaginal discharge. Its treated with both injectable and oral antibiotics over a course of a week. If left untreated, gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease or infertility.
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)
HIV attacks and weakens the human immune system. And because of that, it will often feel like a bad case of the flu. Advanced HIV is acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). It’s transmitted through vaginal and anal sex and sharing needles, oral sex, contact with open wounds. There's no cure, but new meds can help people manage symptoms.
A viral infection, hepatitis causes liver inflammation. There are five types of hepatitis (A, B, C, D, and E). The most common are types A, B, and C, type D only affects those who have hepatitis B, and type E is extremely rare in North America. Type A is spread through anal-oral contact, type B is highly contagious and the most likely to be spread through blood, semen, or vaginal fluid. Type C isn't often spread through sex, and type D is transmitted through contact with infected blood or sex with someone who has HIV.
All the hepatitis types share common symptoms (mild flu symptoms, dark urine, jaundice, and fever), and they usually show up within two to five weeks. Hepatitis A may also cause nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain. There are preventative vaccines available for hepatitis A and B. Hepatitis B can't be cured but almost always goes away on its own within four to eight weeks.
Spread through close physical contact, pubic lice (crabs) are tiny insects that live in coarse body hair. They are extremely itchy. While it’s passed through sexual activity, it can also be transmitted through linens and clothes. It’s treated with OTC creams and lotions that kill the insects and their eggs.
A bacterial STI, an obvious symptom of syphilis is painless sores. Sometimes it might turn into a red pock-like rash. It’s transmitted through contact with syphilis sores during sex. It’s treated with antibiotics (usually penicillin). If left untreated, it can lead to heart and nervous system issues.
- Pelvic and physical exam for signs of infection (warts, rashes, or discharge)
- Blood test
- Urine test
- Fluid or tissue sample
How to prevent STIs
If you’re sexually active, there are a few things you can do to lower your risk of getting an STI:
- Get vaccinated: There are preventative vaccines against HPV and hepatitis B
- Use condoms: Other methods of birth control like birth control pills, shots, implants, or diaphragms won’t protect you from STIs
- Get tested: Ensure you and your partner are both tested for STIs and are transparent with one another
- Have sex with one partner at a time: Being monogamous can lower your risk for STIs
- Don’t douche: Douching can remove the good bacteria in your vaginal biome that protects you from infection
- Wash sex toys and tools: Properly clean intimate pleasure products after each use and avoid sharing them.
Because many people don’t show symptoms and it’s easy for the symptoms to be mistaken for something else, it’s important to get tested regularly. If you’re ever unsure or want more information, consult your doctor.