Are you at risk for sexually transmitted infections?
4/29/2021 by Jennifer Johnson, A.P.R.N., C.N.P., D.N.P.
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. Unfortunately, we're seeing a rise of many sexually transmitted infections in the U.S., particularly syphilis, an infection that was nearly eliminated 10 years ago.
What are the most common sexually transmitted infections?
The most common sexually transmitted infections are:
- Gonorrhea and chlamydia
Females don't always have symptoms with these infections, but if left untreated, they risk developing pelvic inflammatory disease, which can cause infertility and difficult pregnancies. These sexually transmitted infections also can lead to long-term chronic pelvic pain and can put women at higher risk of contracting HIV from an infected partner.
This small, mobile parasite is transmitted during sex. In some people, it creates an abnormal discharge. Others experience no or few symptoms.
This sexually transmitted infection can lead to long-term, irreversible damage to your heart or brain if left untreated.
- HIV, and hepatitis B and C
These sexually transmitted infections aren't curable, even if they're diagnosed. A vaccine is available for hepatitis B. No vaccine is available for hepatitis C or HIV.
This sexually transmitted infection is responsible for most cervical cancers in women and some genital cancers in men. And it's thought to be the cause of numerous other concerns, including throat cancers, genital warts and other skin conditions.
The good news is that these infections are easy to screen for and treatments are available for most. However, if left untreated, sexually transmitted infections 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.
Symptoms can include:
- Abnormal or irregular bleeding from the penis or vagina.
- Abnormal discharge or abnormal odor 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 sexually transmitted infection shows itself right away. Signs of HIV, hepatitis C, HPV and syphilis may not appear for months or years, so it is important to always be cautious. It is also important to be honest with any sexual partners if you are diagnosed with an infection so they can be treated, too.
What can you do?
To protect yourself against sexually transmitted infections, you can:
- Use a condom with each sexual encounter.
- Get screened for sexually transmitted infections regularly, even if you routinely use a condom and after each new sexual partner. Your primary care provider can easily perform these tests. In the near future, you may even be able to perform these tests yourself.
- Stay up to date with Pap tests if you're a woman, and penis and testicular exams if you're a man.
- Ask your partners about their infection history and ensure any recent infections are properly treated.
Contraceptive options, including intrauterine devices, or IUDs, upper arm implants and oral pills can be reliable options for pregnancy prevention. However, these contraceptives don't protect against sexually transmitted infections, so continue to use a condom every time. It's also OK 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, A.P.R.N., C.N.P., D.N.P., is a nurse practitioner in Community Internal Medicine. She provides primary care with an emphasis on women's health.