STIs - Know The Basics

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April is STI Awareness Month- let’s get ready by reviewing the basics. First, sometimes they are called STIs (for Sexually Transmitted Infections) and sometimes they are called STDs (for Sexually Transmitted Diseases), either way, they mean the same thing. STIs are very common, especially among teens. Half of all new STIs are in people under 25 and in California there were almost 42,000 cases of chlamydia and 7,000 cases of gonorrhea among teens in California. While STIs are common, many are curable and are all treatable. When it comes to STIs, not sure what they are? What happens if you have one? How to get tested for them? We have you covered!

Remember, the best way to protect yourself from STIs is abstinence. However, when you choose to have sex in the future, using a condom will help protect you. You can find free condoms near you! Getting tested is also an important way to prevent STIs. You can find a clinic near you to get tested. Don’t forget to ask about your options. Some clinics are providing at home STI tests through telehealth, or virtual care. Now, let’s jump onto some STI facts!

There are two main types of STIs -- bacterial and viral. Bacterial STIs are caused by a bacteria and are curable, but if you have it and take the medication to cure it, you can still get it again. The other type of STIs are caused by a virus. These are not curable, but there is medication you can take to reduce your symptoms and make it less likely to spread them to other people if you choose to have sex.

Bacterial STIs

Chlamydia is a common bacterial STI that can be spread through any type of sex -- oral, vaginal, and anal. While most people who have chlamydia don’t have any symptoms, signs you may have this STI might be discharge, burning when you pee, or pain during sex. If someone gets tested for Chlamydia, they will either do a urine test (peeing in a cup) or a get swabbed during a physical exam. Chlamydia is curable with antibiotics. However, if someone has chlamydia and doesn’t get treatment, they may become infertile or unable to have children in the future. Chlamydia can also cause Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) in someone with a uterus, which can lead to chromic pain and eventually infertility.

Gonorrhea is a common bacterial STI that can be spread through any type of sex -- oral, vaginal, and anal. Most people who have gonorrhea don’t have any symptoms, but if someone does have symptoms, they might have discharge, burning, or pain in the lower abdomen. To get tested for gonorrhea, someone will get a urine test or swabbed during a physical exam. Gonorrhea is curable with antibiotics, but if not treated, it can cause someone to become infertile. Gonorrhea can also cause Pelvic Inflammatory Disease.

Syphilis is a bacterial STI that can be spread through any type of sex -- oral, vaginal, and anal -- and can also be spread by coming in contact with the sores that syphilis causes, called chancres. Because a chancre sore caused by syphilis may be painless and mild, some people don’t notice them. The sore will go away, but unless you get treated, you will still have syphilis. You could also later develop a rash, which will go away, but you will still have syphilis. To get tested for this STI, a doctor might look at your sore or rash if you have them. If not, a doctor or health professional can find out if you have syphilis with a simple blood test. Like other bacterial STIs, syphilis can be cured with an antibiotic. If someone has syphilis for a long time and does not get it treated, it can eventually cause brain damage, heart disease, and even death. Pregnant people can pass syphilis to their baby, which can be dangerous for the child.

Viral STIs

HPV, or human papilloma virus, is the most common STI in the United States. HPV can be transmitted through skin to skin contact with someone who has it. There are some strains of HPV that cause genital warts and some strains that can cause cancer. If you have genital warts, a doctor can look at them and diagnose HPV. People with a uterus can get tested for HPV during a PAP test. There is no HPV test for someone with a penis. There is also no cure for HPV, but you can treat genital warts if they develop. If left untreated, the warts will go away, but the person will still have HPV, which means they can give it to someone else. The best way to protect yourself against HPV is with the HPV vaccine. Getting the vaccine will protect your health now and in the future! Here’s more information about the HPV vaccine.

HIV, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus, is the virus that leads to AIDS. HIV can be transmitted by coming in contact with the blood, semen, vaginal fluid (any fluid produced by the vagina), pre-ejaculatory fluid (or pre-cum), or breast milk of someone who has HIV. HIV often has no symptoms, but if someone has symptoms, they might include fever, fatigue, or rapid weight loss. HIV tests are easy. Sometimes they include swiping inside someone’s cheek, a finger prick, or a blood test. HIV cannot be cured, but people can take medication to slow down the virus in their body and make it so they cannot spread it to others. There is also a medication called PrEP, or Pre-exposure prophylaxis, that people can take if they do not have HIV and want to protect themselves. You should ask your doctor about PrEP if you are interested.

Herpes is a common viral STI that can be spread through skin-to-skin contact with someone who has it. Herpes causes blisters or sores. The sores will go away, but someone will still have herpes. To test for herpes, a doctor or health professional will either look at the blisters or may ask you to do a blood test. There is no cure for herpes but if you contract this STD, you can take medication to make the blisters less uncomfortable and make it harder to spread herpes to other people.

Bottom line

The best way to protect yourself against STIs is abstinence. If you choose to have sex, talking to your partner about using condoms and getting tested are important ways to prevent STIs. Find a clinic near you to get tested for STIs, don’t forget to ask about your options for remote testing using telehealth!


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