Sexually Transmitted Infections: Are you at risk?

10/25/2018 by Jennifer Johnson, APRN, CNP, DNP

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If you’re sexually active — even if you’re in a same-sex relationship or only perform oral sex — you could be at risk for a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Unfortunately, we’re seeing a rise in many STIs in the United States, particularly syphilis, an infection that was nearly eliminated 10 years ago.

What are the most-common STIs?

  • Gonorrhea and chlamydia. Females don’t always have symptoms with these infections, but if left untreated, they risk developing pelvic inflammatory disease, which causes infertility and difficult pregnancies. These STIs also can lead to long-term chronic pelvic pain and can put women at higher risk of contracting HIV from an infected partner.
  • Trichomonas. This small, mobile parasite is transmitted through having sex. In some, it creates an abnormal discharge; others experience no or few symptoms.
  • Syphilis. This STI can lead to long-term, irreversible damage to your heart and/or brain.
  • HIV, Hepatitis B and C. These sexually transmitted viruses aren’t curable, even if they’re diagnosed. There’s a vaccine for Hepatitis B but not for Hepatitis C or HIV.
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV). This virus is responsible for the majority of cervical cancers in women and some genital cancers in men.

The good news is that these infections are easy to screen for, and there are treatments available for most. However, if left untreated, STIs can cause long-term problems including infertility, chronic pain and some cancers.

How do you know if you’re infected?

Women may not have signs of infection until it’s been present for many months. Signs and symptoms tend to appear earlier in men. These may include:

  • Abnormal or irregular bleeding from the penis or vagina
  • Urinary changes
  • Low pelvic or abdominal pain
  • New sore or skin lesion on or near the genitals

However, not every STI shows itself right away. Signs of HIV, Hepatitis C, Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and syphilis may not appear for months or years.

What can you do?

  • Protect yourself by using condoms with each sexual encounter.
  • Get screened for STIs (urine or blood test and/or genital swab). Regular screening is recommended, even if you routinely use a condom, and after each new sexual partner. Your primary care provider can easily do the tests.
  • Stay up to date with Pap tests for women and penis/testicular exams for men.

Although both the intrauterine device (IUD) and the upper arm implants are very reliable options for pregnancy prevention, these contraceptives don’t protect against STIs, so continue to use a condom. It’s also okay to ask new partners to get screened before you become sexually active with them.

If you have a concern or questions, talk with your primary care provider.

Jennifer (Jenna) Johnson, APRN, CNP, DNP, is a nurse practitioner in Community Internal Medicine. She provides primary care with an emphasis on women’s health.