STDs, STIs, and Staying Safe During Intimacy

Get expert insight and advice on today’s most common STDs and STIs, learn the warning signs, and read what it really takes to stay safe while intimate.

Last Updated: 04/14/2020
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MEET THE EXPERTS

Kristy Goodman
Kristy
Goodman

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Kristy Goodman is the Co-Founder and CEO of PreConception Inc., an online service that provides direct-to-consumer preconception testing for women who are planning a pregnancy. Kristy is a women’s health PA with an M.S. in PA Studies and an MPH in Health Education and Behavioral Science from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Kristy completed a postgraduate fellowship in Ob/Gyn and has worked in a variety of settings including sexual health, obstetrics, and infertility evaluation and treatment. Kristy lives in Los Angeles, California, and can be found on Instagram @theobgynpa.

Dr. Jordin Wiggins
Dr. Jordin
Wiggins

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Dr. Jordin Wiggins is a Naturopathic Doctor, entrepreneur, women’s sexual health disruptor, and author The Pink Canary (published March 10, 2020). She is revolutionizing the way we deliver, educate and talk about sexual health, wellness, and pleasure for women. In her private practice (which she owns and operates), Health Over All, Dr. Wiggins and her team are experts on hormone and mood imbalance, libido, bio-marker testing and providing individualized health care so that their patients wake up energized and ready to take on their day. She is setting a higher standard for women’s sexual health, using pleasure as the way back to better relationships, desire and outstanding health, not another pill.

Dr. Patrick Fratellone
Dr. Patrick
Fratellone

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Dr. Patrick Fratellone is an integrative MD/clinical herbalist practicing in New York City and Fairfield Connecticut. He has been in private practice for 25 years. He specializes in cardiology, autoimmune disease, Lyme, and cancer. He is a professor at the University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine. His books and medical journal articles are well-known. www.ratellonemedical.com

On This Page

You’re probably familiar with some of them (chlamydia, HIV), and you might know the basics when it comes to safe sex. And if you’re one of the more than 100 million Americans who have an STI, you’ve learned a lot since being infected. But even those who know a thing or two can run into information that sounds good on the surface, but is actually misleading or downright false.

With STDs and STIs, the consequences can be permanent. Some may be temporary and require a round of antibiotics to clear up, but others remain with you for life, and can put that very life in jeopardy. If you’re sexually active, no matter your age, gender, or orientation, this guide is here to help. Get detailed information on some of today’s most common intimacy-related viruses and infections, and read expert advice on how to really stay safe, where to go to get tested, and what to do if your results come back positive.

Today’s Most Common STDs and STIs

With several STDs and STIs on the rise, you need to know what to look for. And because it’s not always clear (symptoms can be tricky to identify), you need to get tested. But getting tested doesn’t mean visiting your general practitioner and taking a one-test-for-all that covers everything from gonorrhea to HPV. You need to be specific.

“It’s incredibly important to understand which STIs you’re being tested for and which STIs you’re not,” said Kristy Goodman, Co-Founder and CEO of PreConception Inc. “Studies have shown that the majority of patients cannot accurately identify which STIs they’ve been tested for and which they have not, so asking your healthcare provider to tell you, and requesting any specific tests that you want, is super important.”

Here are the most common STDs and STIs today:

Chlamydia

Chlamydia is a bacterial infection that can affect several parts of men’s and women’s bodies, including the vagina, penis, cervix, and anus. It is generally treated with antibiotics.

Genital Warts

Gonorrhea

Hepatitis B

Herpes

HIV and AIDS

HPV

Syphilis

Trichomoniasis

Who is at Risk?

An STD does not discriminate, so anyone who is sexually active is at risk for contracting one. According to the CDC, there were 241,074 cases of gonorrhea in 2018 among women, while the cases of the STD doubled among gay and bisexual men in recent years—making these two groups the most likely to contract it. Similarly, chlamydia is the most reported STD among women, especially those in the 15 to 24 age group, though men saw a 40 percent increase in cases between 2013 and 2017.

Warning Signs

People who are sexually active should know the warning signs of an STD so they can be tested as soon as those symptoms appear. Some of the most common symptoms that people may experience include:

  • A burning sensation when urinating
  • Bumps and sores on the mouth and genitals
  • Vaginal odor
  • Soreness of the anal area
  • Painful intercourse
  • Fever
  • Rash on hands, feet, and chest
  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Severe genital itching
  • Jaundice

Although these warning signs can be a helpful indicator of having an STD, it’s important for people to remember that some illnesses don’t cause visible symptoms. As a result, asymptomatic people should still be tested because those who don’t know they have a condition can suffer permanent damage if the STD isn’t caught in time.

“STIs that go untreated can lead to major and long-term health complications—infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease, and even cancer. Don’t be fooled, just because you don’t feel any different,” said Dr. Jordin Wiggins, author of The Pink Canary. “For example, approximately 75 percent of women and 50 percent of men have zero symptoms but test positive for chlamydia. These STIs can lie dormant for years without symptoms, so the only way to know for sure is to get tested.”  

How and Where to Get Tested for STDs

It is important for all people who are sexually active to get tested for STDs. This is especially true if they exhibit any of the signs. The following section details where you can get an STD test and what you can expect when you do.

Where to Get Tested

Planned Parenthood

Planned Parenthood health centers provide testing for a variety of STDs, including herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis. The organization also provides treatment to those who test positive for these illnesses, as well as education on how to prevent them to those who don’t.

Your regular doctor

People who have a long-time relationship with a physician may feel more comfortable being tested at their doctor’s office. Not only is this option convenient, but it can also be helpful because someone’s regular doctor has access to their medical history, which facilitates the best treatment decisions.

Student health center

Students are able to be tested for STDs at their school’s student health center. The available tests offered may vary depending on the school, but in some cases, they may be able to request specific tests or receive guidance on which ones they should have done.

Community clinic

Sometimes community clinics organize events so people can get tested during a specific time period. In other cases, these organizations offer regular hours to receive testing or allow people to make an appointment.

County health department

County health departments offer STD screenings as part of their wellness programs, as well as treatment and prevention education.

What Happens When You Get Tested?

STEP 1

Make an appointment and ask for the test

People who have a regular doctor, as well as those going to the college health center, can call to make an appointment for an STD test. Those who are getting tests from a county health department or community clinic may need to have their testing done during specific days and times designated for STD screenings.

STEP 2

Keep Your Appointment

In order to get the right tests, people should talk to their doctor about what their concerns are. Doctors will ask questions about symptoms, sexual history, intimate activities that are being engaged in, and any other behaviors that may increase their risk of contracting an STD.

After people provide the information necessary to determine which tests should be taken, the doctor will perform a physical examination and collect samples—such as blood and urine, as well as swabs taken from the mouth, anus, or genital area.

The cost of an STD test depends on where people get them. Places like community clinics and Planned Parenthood may offer free or low cost testing, which can be less than $50. At colleges and universities, as well as doctor’s offices, STD testing may be covered by insurance.

STEP 3

Wait for results

People generally get the results of an STD test within one week. The doctor will call patients to tell them what the results are, or in some cases, send an email or text message for them to come to the office to receive the results in person.

My Test Came Back Positive. Now What?

Learning that you have an STD or STI is stressful, but it’s important to remain calm and move forward with treatment, as well as get information on how to handle intimate relationships going forward.

What is the treatment for an STD?

The treatment course for an STD depends on which one you have. Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis can be treated with antibiotics. Herpes and HIV have no cure, but there are medications that can help manage symptoms and prevent you from passing it on to someone else.

How do I tell others I’ve been intimate with?

How long should I avoid intercourse?

What if it’s a serious result? Is there anyone I can talk to?

Staying Safe During Intimacy

Whether you have received a positive result on an STD test or not, you need to handle intimacy in a safe manner. Although refraining from intimate activity is the only way to stay 100% safe, the following precautions can reduce your risk:

1

Have just one partner

The fewer partners you have, the less likely you are to contract a virus or disease. Monogamous relationships between two people who have been tested is one of the safest ways to go.

2

Use condoms

Condoms (male or female) don’t mean 100% safety, but they do reduce your chances of contracting an STD. If you’re going to be intimate with someone new, or if you have multiple partners, make sure you use one.

3

Start slow

Intimacy with a new partner doesn’t need to mean intercourse. Starting slower and progressing after comfortability and testing can reduce your risk, as well.

4

Get tested often

If you’re sexually active, get tested at least once per year, and ideally every six months. And if you think you’ve been exposed to a virus or disease, get tested immediately.

5

Do not douche

While some may connect it to cleanliness, womenhealth.gov links douching to a number of health issues, including bacterial vaginosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, and even HIV.

6

Clean all toys after use

If you’re bringing intimacy toys into the bedroom, make sure you wash them thoroughly after use. Viruses and bacteria can remain on surfaces for hours after completion.

STD & Intimacy Questions Answered by Experts

Everyone has questions when it comes to STDs and STIs. Lots of misconceptions and misinformation exists. Our panel of experts has taken the most common questions and misunderstood aspects of STDs and answered and addressed them below.

Kristy Goodman

Kristy Goodman is the Co-Founder and CEO of PreConception Inc., an online service that provides direct-to-consumer preconception testing for women who are planning a pregnancy. Kristy is a women’s health PA with an M.S. in PA Studies and an MPH in Health Education and Behavioral Science from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Kristy completed a postgraduate fellowship in Ob/Gyn and has worked in a variety of settings including sexual health, obstetrics, and infertility evaluation and treatment. Kristy lives in Los Angeles, California, and can be found on Instagram @theobgynpa.

Dr. Jordin Wiggins

Dr. Jordin Wiggins is a Naturopathic Doctor, entrepreneur, women’s sexual health disruptor, and author The Pink Canary (published March 10, 2020). She is revolutionizing the way we deliver, educate and talk about sexual health, wellness, and pleasure for women. In her private practice (which she owns and operates), Health Over All, Dr. Wiggins and her team are experts on hormone and mood imbalance, libido, bio-marker testing and providing individualized health care so that their patients wake up energized and ready to take on their day. She is setting a higher standard for women’s sexual health, using pleasure as the way back to better relationships, desire and outstanding health, not another pill.

Dr. Patrick Fratellone

Dr. Patrick Fratellone is an integrative MD/clinical herbalist practicing in New York City and Fairfield Connecticut. He has been in private practice for 25 years. He specializes in cardiology, autoimmune disease, Lyme, and cancer. He is a professor at the University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine. His books and medical journal articles are well-known. www.ratellonemedical.com

How can people deal with testing positive for an STD? How can they navigate the physical and emotional effects?

Goodman: It’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Statistically, one in two people will have an STI at some point in their lives, so it’s likely that you know many people who have also had an STI and just haven’t told you. Make sure you get answers to all your questions, understand whether the STI is curable or not, and what you can do to help protect yourself and your partners in the future. There are several websites that offer online support groups for people diagnosed with an STI and there are even dating sites specifically for people who have incurable STIs, such as herpes.

Dr. Wiggins: A lot of the physical and emotional effects of contracting an STI come from lack of education and stigma surrounding them. STIs are essentially a cold for your genitals. We aren’t embarrassed when we catch a cold from someone, so why are we so embarrassed when it involves sex? Get tested, get treated, inform your partners when they are at risk and actively work on removing the inherent shame/bias you carry about people who have STIs because it is not helping anyone to be safe or get the right treatment.

Dr. Fratellone: Disclosure of a sexually transmitted infection to current or former partners is most important to the prevention and treatment of the STI. If you test positive, you should tell your intimate partners. You can always ask your healthcare practitioner to tell your partner(s) with you present.

I understand it might be embarrassing or even frightening, but it is imperative to be honest with your partners. The thought of getting tested or possibly a positive result might can some anxiety or depression. At this time, seeing a therapist might be a benefit.

What are the best ways to handle disclosing an STD to a potential partner?

What are some common misconceptions about STDs?

What are the most important things people should keep in mind about STDs?

Additional Resources for STD Support and Information

6 Strategies for Breaking the Stigma of Living With an STD

This article from US News Health discusses how people with an STD can talk about their condition without fear or shame.

Emotional Issues

This American Sexual Health Association page explores the emotional toll that being diagnosed with an STD can take.

How You Can Prevent Sexually Transmitted Diseases

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers information on how to avoid getting an STD, or giving it to someone else, on this page.

Just Diagnosed? Next Steps After Testing Positive for Gonorrhea or Chlamydia

This site from the CDC gives guidance on how to handle a positive result on a Gonorrhea or Chlamydia test.

STDs & Pregnancy

The CDC offers information on how STDs can impact pregnancy, as well as treatment options for pregnant women, on this page.

STD Videos

The videos and podcasts on this page include STD information from the CDC.

Sexually transmitted disease (STD) symptoms

This webpage includes information from the Mayo Clinic on the symptoms associated with different types of STDs.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines

This report from the CDC includes information on how sexually transmitted diseases are treated.

What Are STDs?

On this page, Planned Parenthood provides information on the different types of STDs, as well as facts about testing and practices that can reduce the risk of contracting one of these conditions.

What You Need to Know About STDs

On this site, Stanford University Health debunks myths about STDs and provides information on how people can protect themselves.