Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs): General Information

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female gender symbolAnyone who has had sexual contact can get an STI. Men and women of all ages, regions, ethnic backgrounds, and economic levels can get STI. One out of four Americans between ages 15 and 55 will catch at least one STI. STIs are most common among teens and young adults, with about two-thirds of all STIs occurring in people under age 25. Young people are more likely to take more risks and have sex with more partners. Additionally, teen girls are more likely to become infected by chlamydia than adult women are.

STIs include:

What are the symptoms of an STI?

Many STIs may not cause any symptoms. Symptoms vary for each STI, but they include sores or blisters on or around the genital area or in the mouth, pain or burning during urination, unusual discharge from the vagina or penis, itching, swelling, pain in or around the vagina or penis, pain in the pelvic area or abdomen (sometimes with fever and chills), or bleeding other than your menstrual period. If you have any of these symptoms, you could have an STI, but they might also not mean anything serious. Talk to your health care provider right away and get checked out to be safe.

How are STIs spread?

Many STIs are spread through contact with infected body fluids such as blood, vaginal fluids, or semen. They can also be spread through contact with infected skin or mucous membranes, such as sores in the mouth. You may be exposed to infected body fluids and skin through vaginal, anal or oral sex. Anal sex is very risky because it usually causes bleeding. Sharing needles or syringes for drug use, ear piercing, tattooing, etc. can also expose you to infected fluids. Most STIs are only spread through direct sexual contact with an infected person. However, pubic lice and scabies can be spread through close personal contact with an infected person, or with infested clothes, sheets, or towels.

How can I prevent getting an STI?

The best way to prevent getting an STI is to not have sex. Some STIs can’t be cured, so you should always practice safer sex, or find ways to be intimate in a romantic relationship without having sex. This means preventing the passing of body fluids such as blood, semen, and vaginal fluids, and avoiding direct oral, anal, or genital contact (by using a latex condom).

If you do decide to have sex, you should:

  • Use condoms 100% of the time. You need to make sure that you use a new latex condom (or dental dam) correctly every time you have oral, anal, or vaginal sex. If you are allergic to latex, use a polyurethane male or female condom.
  • Use a water-base lubricant with condoms. The lubricant will keep the condom from breaking. Never use lubricants that contain oil or fat, such as petroleum jelly or cooking oil. These products weaken “latex” and can cause the condom to break.
  • Limit the number of people you have sex with. The more partners you have, the greater your risk of being exposed to an STI.
  • Choose partners who have not had sex with many other partners, and who will have sex only with you while you’re together. You should ask your partner(s) if he/she has an STI, has been exposed to one, or has physical symptoms of an STI.
  • NOT have sex with anyone that has signs of an STI (sores, rashes, or discharge from the genital area).
  • Have your partner get checked out for STI before you have sex. Keep in mind that tests for sexually transmitted infections don’t pick up all STIs.

Other ways to prevent getting an STI include:

  • Don’t inject drugs or have sex with someone who has
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs, since they can make you more likely to take chances with sex
  • Don’t douche, since this can cause different germs in your vagina and increase the risk of pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Get the Hepatitis B and HPV vaccinations

What should I do if I think I have a STI?

If you have any symptoms of an STI, any unexplained problems, or you think you may have been exposed to an STI (even if you don’t have symptoms), see your health care provider right away and get tested. You can’t correctly test or diagnose yourself with an STI. Only your health care provider can do that. Most STIs can be treated. The earlier you get treatment, the better. More serious problems can develop if you wait. Whenever possible, treatment is given in a single dose, but sometimes you need to take medication over a period of time.

Are STI tests always accurate?

No test for any STI is 100% accurate. Some STIs don’t show up right away and some STI don’t have tests, so they may be missed. It could take an infection anywhere from a couple of days to a few years to show up in testing. If you think you have an STI, get tested. If you test negative, you may have to go back again to get re-tested. Even if you test negative, keep practicing safe sex. Talk to your health care provider about speaking with a counselor if you have concerns.

What about confidentiality?

What you tell your health care provider about your sexual behavior and exposure to STIs is confidential. By law, your health care provider can’t talk about anything you tell him/her, unless he/she seriously believes that you are a danger to yourself or others, or that you aren’t able to make decisions on your own. So your parents, teachers, partners, or friends can’t find out any information from your health care provider about STIs. However, you may find it very helpful to talk to your parents about your health and your worries. This can be a scary time for you and it’s always good to have an adult to talk to.

What should I do if I have an STI?

You need to tell all sex partner(s) who may have been exposed. Try to get them to get tested. If you feel that you can’t tell your partner(s), talk to your health care provider. He/she will help you to tell your partner(s) or will help you find another way to let your partner(s) know he/she has been exposed. You and your current sexual partner(s) need to get treated at the same time to prevent passing the infection back and forth. Make sure you follow your health care provider’s directions on taking medication, and make sure you finish all of the medicine, even if you feel better. Schedule a follow-up exam with your health care provider after you’ve finished treatment. Don’t have sex again until your health care provider says you’re cured. If you’re concerned or upset about having an STI, think about getting counseling. Your health care provider can help you find a counselor.

If I’ve had an STI, can I get it again?

Yes. You can get the same STI again if you have sex – especially if you have sex without a condom. You can also have more than one STI at a time. Also, some STIs aren’t curable, so you can still have the STI even if you’ve gotten treatment.

What serious problems can STIs cause?

If STIs aren’t treated, they can have serious side effects, such as:

  • Pain
  • Worsening infection
  • Infertility (being unable to have children)
  • Increased risk for some types of cancer
  • Brain damage
  • Heart disease
  • Birth defects
  • Death

What is the relationship between STIs and pregnancy?

Pregnant women with STIs may miscarry or may pass on their STI to their baby. STIs can also cause low birth weight and premature babies. Babies with infected mothers can have problems such as pneumonia, eye infections, and brain damage.

When should I get a Pap test?

A Pap test is usually done when you turn 21 or earlier if you have other risks for abnormal Pap tests, such as problems with your immune system. A Pap test doesn’t check for STIs directly, but problems on the Pap test may mean that you’ve gotten an STI (usually human papillomavirus – HPV). The Pap test is the only way to check the cells on your cervix for changes that can lead to cervical cancer. If you think you might have an STI, your health care provider will check you for an STI and explain to you when to begin Pap testing.

The only way to prevent getting an STI is by not having sex. The next best ways to prevent an STI are by using a latex condom every time you have sex and choosing partners who are at low risk for an STI. Seeing a health care provider regularly is important to learn more about how to prevent STIs and to be checked to see if you’ve gotten an STI. Definitely see a health care provider if you think you might have an STI.

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