STIs are sexually transmitted infections. They are exactly what they sound like – viral or bacterial infections that are passed through sexual acts. This includes vaginal sex, anal sex, oral sex, and genital touching. Most STIs enter the body one of two ways: via skin-to-skin contact or exchange of bodily fluids like saliva, blood, or semen.
You might have also heard the term STD, which stands for sexually transmitted disease. An STD refers to a physical manifestation of the infection (aka, symptoms!). All STDs start as STIs, but not all STIs become STDs. Some people may have an STI and be asymptomatic, which means they never display symptoms at all. Asymptomatic people can still pass the infection onto someone else, and because you can’t tell if someone has an STI just by looking at them, it’s important to take steps to protect yourself against STIs.
Anyone who has unprotected sex is at risk of getting an STI. Forms of contraception such as birth control pills or an IUD do not protect against STIs, so using a condom is the only preventative method. However, mistakes can still happen. It’s recommended that you get tested for STIs at least once a year, and every 3-6 months if you’re sexually active with multiple different partners. STI testing is simple and straightforward: it usually just requires a urine test or a quick swab of the oral, anal, or vaginal cavity. Until you get your results back, it would be smart to stop having sex to ensure that you do not pass a possible infection to your sexual partner. You can get tested at your local healthcare clinic or even a facility like Planned Parenthood. Most places will remain confidential, meaning that they won’t tell anyone like your parents that you chose to get tested. Remember, it’s important to get tested because you yourself could be asymptomatic, not just your partner.
Here is a list of some of the most common STIs and their symptoms. If you’re experiencing any of them, make sure to see a trusted medical professional. An untreated STI can have dire health consequences in the form of infertility, organ damage, and pregnancy complications such as passing it on to the fetus.
- Chlamydia: This bacteria is responsible for the most STDs in the US. Symptoms include painful urination, vaginal discharge or atypical bleeding, testicular pain or discharge, rectal inflammation, sore throat, and conjunctivitis (pink eye). The good news - like any other bacterial infection, this is easily treatable with antibiotics.
- Gonorrhea: Another bacterial source of STIs, gonorrhea can exist on its own or show up alongside chlamydia. Yes, you read that right: sometimes people get two STIs for the price of one. The symptoms can also resemble chlamydia and are also treatable with fast action and the right medication.
- Herpes: This is a well-known infection, largely because the sores of herpes are generally noticeable, painful, or both. Herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) and can show up as a painful rash or pimple-like sore. Some STIs and STDs are passed without having sex – if blood or bodily fluids are exchanged, the infections can be, too. This can happen with herpes. Most people actually have some form of HSV, like a cold sore, but they can happen below the belt too on the genital area. HSV never really goes away, but antiviral medications can make them less painful and delay reactivation.
- HIV: Short for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, symptoms can mimic being sick such as a fever, headache, sore throat, sweats, and swollen lymph glands. HIV can be spread through sex or when bodily fluids such as blood exchange, like when drug users share needles. Over time, HIV can weaken the body’s immune system and become Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). HIV rates are higher amongst gay men, so those at higher risk should speak to their doctor about PrEP (pre-exposure medication). HIV isn’t curable, but it’s treatable and can be managed thanks to developments in medicine.
- HPV: Short for Human Papilloma Virus, HPV is usually asymptomatic but can show up in the form of warts on the general body or genital area. HPV can lead to cancer and is more common in women, which is why it’s important to see your gynecologist for a pap smear when you reach a certain age.
- Syphilis: Syphilis develops across multiple stages and can first appear as a sore on the genital area before becoming a full blown rash. Fever, muscle aches, hair loss, and sore throat can occur in the second stage. If left untreated, syphilis can enter the latent stage where there are no symptoms, and may progress to the tertiary stage where the brain, nerves, and joints are damaged. This can happen years after the initial infection.
- Trichomoniasis: This is an STI caused by a parasite, and it more commonly affects women. Common symptoms are foul smelling or discolored discharge, pain during urination, and itchiness of the genitals. This is treated with a type of oral medication.
If you find yourself testing positive for any of these STIs, make sure to notify your recent sexual partners so they can get tested and treated too.
The bottom line when it comes to STIs: being sexually active isn’t shameful and neither is taking precautions against STIs. Be honest about your sexual history with your healthcare provider so they can give you advice on how often to test for STIs, and always reach out to them if you find yourself dealing with unexpected physical symptoms. Make sure to always use condoms, especially with a new sexual partner whose sexual history you don’t know.