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:
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.
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
- Rash on hands, feet, and chest
- Vaginal bleeding
- Severe genital itching
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.
What Happens When You Get Tested?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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
Additional Resources for STD Support and Information
This article from US News Health discusses how people with an STD can talk about their condition without fear or shame.
This American Sexual Health Association page explores the emotional toll that being diagnosed with an STD can take.
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.
This site from the CDC gives guidance on how to handle a positive result on a Gonorrhea or Chlamydia test.
The CDC offers information on how STDs can impact pregnancy, as well as treatment options for pregnant women, on this page.
The videos and podcasts on this page include STD information from the CDC.
This webpage includes information from the Mayo Clinic on the symptoms associated with different types of STDs.
This report from the CDC includes information on how sexually transmitted diseases are treated.
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.
On this site, Stanford University Health debunks myths about STDs and provides information on how people can protect themselves.