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Even if you haven’t ever picked up a sexually transmitted infection, chances are you’ve been exposed to (or even acquired) some sketchy information on the subject. Rumors and myths about STIs are common. We don’t all have access to reliable sex education, and even accurate information can become outdated. But maybe, most of all, talking about STIs can feel icky. What’s your STI-Q? To find out, see the questions below, and click to see if you got the right answer.
What’s the difference between STIs and STDs?STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) are essentially different terms for the same thing: the bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other organisms that can infect people through oral, vaginal, and anal sex. STIs can be spread through bodily fluids and skin-to-skin contact. Technically, “disease” implies that symptoms are present—which is often not the case with STIs. “Disease” may also feel more stigmatizing. Most sexual health educators working in colleges say “STIs.” True trivia Previously, STIs were called venereal diseases. They were named for Venus, the Roman goddess of love. More about terminology
Which STI gets around the most? And how can I fend it off?Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is one of the most common STIs across all age groups in the US. In the US, 79 million people have HPV, and more than 14 million people become infected every year, according to the CDC. Nearly all sexually active men and women become infected with HPV at some point in their lives. HPV can cause genital warts and cancers of the cervix, anus, penis, vulva, mouth, and throat. Many strains of HPV do not usually cause harm, however.
How to reduce your risk of becoming infected with HPV or other STIs
- Up to age 26, men and women can get a vaccine that protects against some strains of HPV. You can also be vaccinated for hepatitis A and hepatitis B. Talk to your health care provider.
- Use a condom and/or dental dam every time (see #9). These do not guarantee protection but do reduce your risk.
- Get tested once a year or with every new sexual partner (see #5). Discuss the availability and accuracy of tests with your health care provider.
- Get comfortable talking about sex and STI prevention. This means:
- Feeling empowered to talk about what you want or don’t want sexually
- Discussing pleasure and what feels good to both of you
- Becoming comfortable with getting tested and asking partners to get tested as well
- Discussing the use of condoms (male and female), lubrication, and dental dams (oral dams) to reduce exposure to STIs
- If pregnancy is a concern: discussing methods of birth control
These methods do NOT protect you from STIs
- Vaginal or anal douching before or after sex.
- Withdrawal before ejaculation: Pre-ejaculate can still transmit infection, and some infections can be passed via skin-to-skin contact (e.g., HPV, herpes, and syphilis).
- Mutual masturbation: You might still be exposed to pubic lice, herpes, HPV, chlamydia, and some other STIs.
Am I more likely to get accidentally pregnant or get an STI?You’re twice as likely to get an STI as you are to get accidentally pregnant. About 1 percent of college students said they or their partner experienced an unintended pregnancy in the last 12 months. Just over 2 percent said they’d experienced an STI—and they are only the ones who knew about it. (American College Health Association–National College Health Association survey, spring 2014.) In a single year:
- More than 200,000 college students experienced an unintended pregnancy in themselves or their partner.
- More than 450,000 college students got an STI that they knew about.
Is HPV another name for herpes–or what?What. Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is often confused with herpes (Herpes Simplex Virus, or HSV). These are two different viruses. They are both transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. HPV can cause genital warts and cancers of the cervix, anus, penis, vulva, mouth, and throat. Many strains of HPV do not usually cause harm, however. Men and women up to age 26 can get a vaccine that protects against some strains of HPV. Talk to your health care provider. See #2. Herpes can cause sores at the point of infection, which may be in the genital area or on the mouth. Many people who have been infected with herpes experience no symptoms or have mild symptoms that they attribute to other conditions. Treatment can help minimize the symptoms and lower the chance of transmission. See #10.
Which STIs should I get tested for?Getting tested for STIs is a gateway to treatment and helps you protect yourself and your partner(s). Get tested for these conditions once a year or whenever you have a new sexual partner. Discuss with your health care provider whether to get tested for other STIs as well.
- Herpes: Medication can help minimize outbreaks and symptoms.
- Chlamydia and gonnorrhea: Can be present without symptoms. Can cause fertility problems in men and women if left untreated. Curable.
- HIV: 1 in 6 people in the US who have HIV do not know it. If you’re at high risk of HIV, check out pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP. This medication can help reduce your risk. Get prepped on PrEP
- Syphilis: Can be devastating if left untreated. Can be cured. New cases are most common in men who have sex with men. True trivia: Syphilis may have been mistaken for leprosy as far back as 3,000 BCE.
Am I doomed to get an STI by age 25?By age 25, most US adults have acquired at least one STI. Teens and young adults are the most at-risk demographic for STIs. Rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea are highest in people aged 20–24. Are STIs your fate? No. To minimize your risk of becoming infected:
- Use a condom or dental dam every time.
- Get tested once a year or with every new sexual partner.
- Get comfortable talking about sex and STI prevention.
- Behavior: e.g., not using safer sex methods, having multiple sexual partners, and not getting tested. You can control behavioral risks.
- Culture: e.g., discomfort talking about sex and STI prevention, pressure to have sex, and expectations associated with gender roles. Being aware of these influences can help you address them.
- Biology: The physical development of young adults can make you more susceptible to STI infection. For example, in young women, the surface of the cervix is more exposed to some sexually transmitted organisms (e.g., HPV) than in older women.
What does an infection look like?Often, an STI infection looks like the absence of an STI infection. Most STIs don’t have visible symptoms. People who look perfectly healthy can be infected with STIs. Often, students ask college health counselors for images of STI symptoms. Be warned: In real life, symptoms often don’t look like those images. And most symptoms aren’t visible anyway. How to know if you or your partner has an infection: STI testing is the only way.
How can I talk to my partner about STIs?What gives STIs their big advantage? Awkwardness. Talking about your sexual health allows you more protection, control, and autonomy. If you have an STI, it’s important to tell a partner before engaging in any sexual activity.
- Have the discussion in advance. Don’t wait until you’re irrational with desire.
- Make the first move—a conversational move. Don’t wait for them to initiate the STI talk.
- Explain that this is not about trust and it’s not about cheating.
- If you’re anxious, acknowledge it: “OK, so this is awkward, but I’m pretty sure we can handle awkward. It’s important to me that we go get tested together.”
- If a partner tells you they have an STI, respect their honesty and maturity and their consideration for you and your needs. Protect their confidentiality.
- If you discuss this sensitively and yet your partner doesn’t want to get tested, be cautious. Healthy relationships require mutual respect and responsibility.
Does size matter? And other questions about condomsAre students using condoms frequently? Yes. Two out of three heterosexual, sexually active students reported using a male condom for birth control the last time they had vaginal intercourse, according to the AMCH–NCHA survey (spring 2014). Can any other method help prevent both STIs and pregnancy? No—only condoms (male and female versions). Latex and latex-free condoms are available. For oral sex involving a penis, you can use a dry, lubricated, or flavored condom. Putting lubrication inside the condom increases sensitivity for both partners and makes the condom easier to put on. Does condom size matter? Yes. The condom may stretch, but is it comfortable and pleasurable? Too tight, and the elastic base could cut off blood flow or cause discomfort. Too loose, and it could come off during sex. Condoms are available in varying shapes and sizes, so explore the best fit. Here’s how to find the right condom size
What’s a dental dam and how can I get some?What’s a dental dam? Dental dams (oral dams) probably lower your risk of STIs (but not pregnancy). A dental dam is a thin cover placed over the vulva or anus for oral sex. You can cut a condom or medical glove into a dental dam, or substitute plastic wrap. The effectiveness of dental dams (including plastic wrap) in preventing STI transmission has not been adequately studied; nevertheless, the use of dental dams is recommended by many sexual health professionals. How can I get some? Dental dams are available on many campuses for a low cost or for free. They are also available in some specialty stores, such as sex toy or condom stores, or online, for about $1.50 each. True trivia The earliest known image of a condom is in a painting created 12,000–15,000 years ago in what is now France.
Which is more common: having a cat or having herpes?It depends on which type of herpes we’re talking about. In the US, about one in four people aged 18–49 have a cat, according to Pew Research Center (2010). More people have a cat than have herpes type 2 Herpes type 2 (HSV2) is traditionally known as genital herpes. In the US, 16 out of 100 people aged 14–49 have genital herpes (CDC). That translates to 50 million people, with 776,000 new cases each year. More people have herpes type 1 than have a cat Herpes type 1 (HSV1) causes cold sores and genital sores. In the US, more than half of people aged 14–49 (54 percent) have HSV1 (CDC). Among teens, the rate is 3 in 10. Although we think of HSV1 as causing cold sores, this strain of the virus can be transmitted through oral sex and is responsible for more cases of genital sores than HSV2 is. Herpes is very common. To reduce your risk of acquiring or passing on a herpes infection, use a condom or dental dam every time you are sexually active.
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