There is a lot of negative stigma and shame surrounding sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), so they aren’t usually talked about. An STD, also referred to as STI (sexually transmitted infection), is nothing to feel ashamed about and the stigma should not prevent you from learning about your sexual health. Let’s get into STDs, how you can get one, and how to communicate with your partner that you have one.
What's an STD?
All STDs begin as a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and the essential difference is one is a disease and one is an infection. STDs come in many different shapes and sizes but are all transmitted by oral, vaginal, or anal sex. The bacteria that cause STDs can be carried in a person’s blood, semen, and vaginal or other bodily fluids and transmitted to another’s. According to the CDC, consistent use of latex condoms reduces the risk of getting or spreading STDs transmitted by genital fluids. Some of the most common types of STDs are:
Chlamydia is a very common STD in both men and women and can be cured with treatment from a primary care physician. While most people with chlamydia don’t experience symptoms, some might experience abnormal discharge and burning when they pee.
Gonorrhea is an STD that can cause infections in the genitals, rectum, and throat and is very common in both men and women. While gonorrhea typically does not present any symptoms, symptoms can include painful urination, discharge, pain or swelling in one testicle, vaginal bleeding in between periods or after sex, and abdominal pain. Gonorrhea is not permanent and can be cured with proper treatment by your primary care physician.
Trichomoniasis is a very common STD and is most often passed during vaginal sex, but is also spread during oral and anal sex through a parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis. Trichomoniasis can cause symptoms in anyone but is most likely to cause vaginitis and cause you to develop symptoms like green, yellow, grey, frothy, and/or bad-smelling vaginal discharge, bloody vaginal discharge, itching and irritation in and around your vagina, swelling around your genitals, and pain during sex. Other symptoms of trichomoniasis include pain and burning when you pee, the urge to pee a lot, discharge from your urethra, and itching and irritation inside your penis. Trichomoniasis is very curable and only 30% of those infected will experience any symptoms.
Genital warts affect the moist tissues in the genital area and look like small bumps rarely big enough to be visible. This is sometimes caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), which doctors recommend vaccinating against before becoming sexually active.
Herpes is very common in both men and women and is spread through oral, vaginal, and anal sex as well as saliva transmission. There are two strands of the herpes virus known as HSV-1 and HSV-2. Typically, HSV-1 indicates oral herpes and HSV-2 indicates genital herpes, but you can have either strand orally or genitally. Most people with herpes don’t show symptoms, but those who do will experience cold sores around the mouth or genitals, known as an “outbreak”. Unfortunately, there is no cure for herpes but there are ways to make it more manageable and prevent your body from having outbreaks and spreading it to your partner.
Syphilis is an STD resulting in sores or a rash in the genital area or site of infection that can be treated and cured by a doctor. It is spread through oral, anal, and vaginal sex and usually lasts between 3-6 weeks.
Each type of STD shows different symptoms and should be treated differently. What’s important is that you get tested if you’re experiencing symptoms and avoid any sexual activity until properly treated. Some common symptoms of an STD include sores or bumps in the genital or mouth area, unusual smelling discharge, and unusual vaginal bleeding. If you experience any of those symptoms, contact your primary care provider immediately.
How to tell if you have an STD
While a lot of STDs make themselves obvious with symptoms, many live dormant in the body without any signs or symptoms. Because of this, it’s important to get screened for STDs by your primary care physician yearly if you are sexually active. If you are showing symptoms and want to get tested you can make an appointment at an urgent care, a lab testing facility, or with your primary care physician. The only way to know for sure if you have an STD is by getting tested. Testing is usually done through a blood test or genital swab performed by your primary care physician.
How to protect against STDs
The only way to 100% prevent getting or spreading an STD is to avoid having sex completely, Don’t worry though, there are tons of ways to protect yourself and your partner from your STDs., For couples having penetrative sex, using condoms regularly can reduce the chances of contracting an STD drastically and are an important part of sexual health. Be sure to use condoms with your sexual partners, as any infection that was transmitted to them through past or current sexual partners can be transmitted to you. If you have had the same sexual partner for a long period of time and feel ready to stop using condoms, be sure to talk to your partner to make sure you are on the same page and that neither of you is in sexual contact with anyone else.
These are the most common STDs passed during vaginal sex: bacterial vaginosis, herpes, HPV, pubic lice, and trichomoniasis. No worries- there are tons of ways to have safer sex and protect against STDs. Be sure to wash your hands and also clean sex toys.
An important note for all couples is to avoid any type of sex if you’re actively experiencing symptoms, and talk to your primary care physician about things you can do to help manage your STD.
How soon after unprotected sex can I test for STDs?
The time you should wait to get tested for an STD after unprotected sex is different for each type. According to Healthline, these are the recommended timelines between unprotected sex and getting tested for these types of STDs:
Chlamydia: 7-21 days
Genital and oral herpes: 2-12 days
Gonorrhea: 1-14 days
Syphilis: 3 weeks
Trichomoniasis: 5-28 days
Scabies: 4-8 weeks
Most STDs can be tested by a urine sample, a swab inside the penis or cervix, or a blood test. While STD tests are generally accurate, no test is 100% accurate 100% of the time and false positive and negative results are possible. If you’re not actively experiencing STD symptoms, it’s sometimes hard for tests to detect the infection and could lead to a false negative.
How to tell someone you have an STD
Talking to your partner about your STD is not a fun conversation to have, but it’s an important one. Disclosing that you have an STD before having sex is necessary to both you and your partners’ health and allows you to make informed and safe decisions about how to move forward. Before having this talk, do some research on the type of STD you have so you can present your partner with all of the facts and understand it yourself.
The fact is, STDs are far more common than we think, with around 20 million new STD cases in the US each year. Having an STD shouldn’t stop you from embracing your sexuality. Don’t be too hard on yourself or on your partner for having an STD, because it only takes one sexual encounter to get one.
STDs aren’t pleasant, but they’re also not the end of the world. And just by reading this article, you’re doing what you can to get in the know about ways to maintain your sexual health. For more like this, head to the Stix Library or send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.