Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) only happen to people with multiple partners who do not use protection, right? WRONG! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 20 million United States citizens get a sexually transmitted infection each year, with 15 to 24-year-olds accounting for half of all new STIs. Protecting yourself against sexually transmitted infections is important and should be achieved not through fear, but rather education. So, to help you make informed decisions when it comes to sexual activity, here is some information I share with my patients.
One of the most common sexually transmitted infections we see in otherwise healthy people, ESPECIALLY in our local area, is chlamydia. This is a bacterial infection that causes pain, inflammation (swelling), and discharge from the genitals. The infection can be diagnosed by examining a swab of the discharge from the genital area or even a simple urine test. Because it is a bacterial infection, Chlamydia can be treated with antibiotics. However, you can get infected again if your sexual partner has chlamydia and does not receive treatment. The danger of chlamydia is that it can cause Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) in women. PID consists of inflammation in a woman’s reproductive organs to the point where they may be permanently damaged, preventing future pregnancies or causing future pregnancy complications. Additionally, chlamydia can cause infection of the eyes and lungs in the newborns of mothers that are not treated.
Another common STI that occurs in otherwise healthy people is Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). HPV is the virus that causes genital warts and abnormal growth of the cervix or penis leading to cervical or penile cancer. HPV can also be silent; meaning a person may carry the virus in their system WITHOUT showing outward symptoms of the virus like warts. Close genital skin contact, even without having sexual intercourse, can spread the virus and cause symptoms or damage YEARS after the encounter. One encounter with one person is all it may take to contract HPV, and unfortunately, it is NOT curable. It is, however, preventable. A vaccine called Gardasil can protect a person from getting some of the most common and dangerous strands of the HPV virus. The vaccine is approved for boys and girls ages nine to 26 and, despite the rumors I often hear, it is safe and advised
Several of my colleagues have also published blogs about HPV and the vaccine:
A Cancer Vaccine – Preventing Cervical and Head and Neck Cancers Through HPV Immunization
HPV and Cervical Cancer
How To Talk To Your Teenager About Sex
There are many other STIs not discussed in this article i.e. gonorrhea, herpes, syphilis, and HIV/AIDS. I wanted to focus on chlamydia and HPV because they are the most common STIs diagnosed in our region. However, it’s important to note that the rates of HIV in the tri-state area have increased in the past few years due to the high amount of drug use where people share needles. Unfortunately, many STIs like HIV are not curable and can change a person’s life forever.
So, how can you avoid getting an STI? The only thing that completely prevents STIs is not having sexual activity and sexual intercourse. This is called abstinence. In my practice, I share the importance of abstinence (as it relates to health) to my young adult patients and encourage them to be respectful of themselves and others when it comes to the subject of sex.
For those who do not practice abstinence, it’s very important to protect yourself and your future health by always using a condom during sexual activity. When used correctly and consistently, condoms decrease the risk of getting STIs. They do not provide full protection from all STIs because some infections can be spread through close genital skin contact and/or oral sex.
If you need more information about the prevention and treatment of STIs, talk to your doctor. We are trained to have difficult and potentially embarrassing conversations about the human body! You can also check with the local health department or a trusted website, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The bottom line is this: sexually transmitted infections need medical care, not shame. If we work toward addressing these types of infections more openly in the health care setting, we can positively affect the overall health of our community.