No one wants to get a sexually transmitted infection (STI), but it happens more often than you think. More than half of all people will get an STI at some point in their lives.
So, if you think there is a possibility you have one, don’t freak out. While there is stigma around them, STIs are easily treatable.
Here’s everything you need to know, including your testing and treatment options and how to tell your sexual partner.
What is the difference between an STI and STD?
The term STD stands for sexually transmitted disease. You are probably most familiar with this term, but today, the term STI is a more accurate and the up-to-date one used by health care providers. Here’s why:
An infection happens when a virus, bacteria or parasite enters your body and starts multiplying. Diseases occur when the infection causes symptoms. While some STIs can progress to STDs, most do not. This is why many experts are using STIs over STDs.
“When we hear the word disease, there is a lot of stigma and baggage associated with it,” said Angela Feng, DO, a family medicine physician with Banner Health. “Disease suggests a person has a medical problem with obvious signs and symptoms. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.”
Symptoms can take days, weeks or even years to appear. In the meantime, a person can unknowingly keep spreading the infection to sexual partners.
Calling STIs a disease can also make it harder for people to talk honestly with their partners, get tested, and have safer sex.
For these reasons, health care providers prefer to use the less stigmatized acronym STI.
Why is STI testing so important?
Here’s the thing: You may have an STI and not even know it. STIs like chlamydia, gonorrhea, human papillomavirus (HPV) and herpes can be present days, weeks or years before symptoms appear.
This is why it is so important to get regularly tested if you are sexually active. STI tests help protect you and your partner/s. And it ensures that you and your sexual partner/s receive prompt treatment.
“Prolonged infection without treatment or re-infection can put a person at risk of more serious illness, such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), cervical cancer and issues with fertility due to damage to reproductive organs,” Dr. Feng said.
You should get tested for STIs at the following times if you:
- Have sex with a new partner.
- Have had unprotected sex.
- Think you might have an STI.
- Want a routine sexual health check.
- Had sex and the condom broke.
- Are pregnant.
- Have symptoms.
You can get tested at home via a rapid at-home test, your provider’s office or a local health clinic.
Is the LGBTQ+ community at greater risk for STIs?
While anyone who engages in sex can get an STI, some lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people face an increased risk for HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and STIs.
“In the U.S., gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM) are most affected by HIV and other STIs,” Dr. Feng said. “The greatest number of new cases being among adolescent and adult gay and bisexual men.”
Part of the increased risk in these populations stems from societal and biological factors and a lack of knowledge. For example, certain behaviors, such as not using condoms regularly and having anal sex, can increase the risk of an STI. Also, homophobia, stigma and discrimination can negatively influence the health of an LGBTQ+ person.
Your health care provider can offer the best care if you discuss your sexual history openly. They can provide appropriate safer sex counseling and offer prevention strategies, such as vaccinations and pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV (PrEP). Read “PrEP: Preventing HIV/AIDS, One Pill at a Time” to learn more.
Schedule an appointment with an LGBTQ+ specialty care provider.
Will I have an STI forever?
“Not necessarily,” Dr. Feng said. “Many STIs can be cured with antibiotics and other medicine, but if they aren’t, they can still be treated and managed.”
Antibiotics and other medicines can be used to cure parasitic and bacterial infections like:
- Crabs (pubic lice) and scabies
“Chlamydia can be treated with oral antibiotics, and gonorrhea and syphilis are treated with antibiotic injections,” Dr. Feng said.
Antiviral medications can be used to treat but not cure viral infections like:
“Viral STIs are more of a permanent diagnosis depending on the type, and the virus can remain permanently in the body of the person infected,” Dr. Feng said. “However, antiretroviral therapy is very effective at reducing the symptoms caused by these kinds of STIs, and people can go on to live healthy lives.”
How do I tell my partner/s I have an STI?
Your partner/s may also be infected and not know it. Although you don’t need to get back in touch with all your ex-partners, you should let your current partner/s know and encourage them to get tested. It is undoubtedly a difficult conversation to have, but it is the right thing to do.
The best way to talk to someone you’ve recently had sexual contact with is in a non-sexual environment where you can speak honestly and openly. Focus on the facts and avoid the blame game. Listen to your partner’s concerns, offer solutions and include information on treatment options.
If you don’t feel comfortable telling your sexual partner/s, your local health department can speak to them. However, this type of news is best when it comes directly from you.
“Realize you aren’t a dirty or bad person,” Dr. Feng said. “If your partner/s doesn’t respond positively or responds harshly, it says more about them than it does about you.”
For additional help, check out these conversation tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Should I get retested?
Once you complete treatment, it is a good idea to get retested in about three months to ensure there is no treatment failure or a re-infection.
“In general, get screened on a routine basis, even if you have no symptoms or previous infection,” Dr. Feng said. “This should be done yearly, especially if you have new sexual partners in that timeframe.”
Continue to protect yourself from STIs
“I recommend using condoms and dental dams, continuing to get tested and talking with your partners about your sexual history BEFORE having sex,” Dr. Feng said. “Make sure you and your new partner are up to date with STI screenings.”
You may get a diagnosis you weren’t planning for, but now you have a plan to deal with it.
Talk to your health care provider if you have additional questions, concerns or health problems.