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Any sex ed class you’ve ever been subjected to has likely emphasized the importance of protecting yourself against sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
At this point, it may even seem super redundant, kind of boring, and just another way old people try to scare you off from having sex — but those warnings aren’t meant to be boring or scary. Being aware and knowledgable about your sexual health is actually really important.
Sexually transmitted diseases are the most common type of infectious diseases out there in the world today. Period. Like, out of every single kind of disease. Saying they’re common is an understatement.
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A quick refresher: STD, or sexually transmitted disease, is the commonly used term for infections that can be transmitted through sexual contact. Another term you might hear is STI, which stands for sexually transmitted infection. Essentially, they’re referring to the same thing.
However, while many people use the two terms interchangeably, not all sexually transmitted infections end up turning into full-blown diseases.
In fact, according to BeforePlay.org, many physicians are transitioning from using “STDs” to “STIs,” since it’s more accurate.
– According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 20 million new STD infections occur each year in the United States alone.
– Currently, there are more than 110 million sexually transmitted infections among men and women in the U.S. Yeah, that’s pretty scary stuff, especially considering a CDC report from last year found that sexually transmitted diseases are hitting record highs.
– In fact, this country spends $16 billion on treating STIs — EACH YEAR.
We spoke to Dr. James Wantuck, co-founder of online urgent care provider PlushCare about some of the factors.”Many people cite the ‘Tinder effect’ [for the uptick in STI diagnoses] — that young people are more promiscuous now than they used to be,” Wantuck says.
However, he points out that the data doesn’t indicate that Tinder (or online dating) is a real contributor. In fact, the population’s average number of sexual partners (over a person’s lifetime) has stayed pretty constant since the year 2000.
“You might also guess that even though people aren’t having more partners, they might be doing it with less protection. This is also false. In reality, the use of condoms has doubled since the 1980s, and continues to be very prevalent,” he says.
Instead, Wantuck believes stagnant funding to the CDC and local public health departments (which are the front-line caregivers for testing and treatment) are behind the recent increase in STD cases. “It’s really an issue of access to health care and funding for STI programs around the country,” he explains.
We really need to focus on getting more people screened and effectively treated.
Fred Wyand, director of communications at the American Sexual Health Association, agrees. He told AwesomenessTV, “Many factors contribute to the rise of STDs: safe sex practices; sexual health education; contraceptive access; and more. But a big factor is low STD-testing rates.”
According to Wyand, one in two young people will get an STD by the time they hit 25.
“So at a minimum, the CDC recommends that sexually-active women under age 25 get tested every year for the most common infections (chlamydia and gonorrhea),” he said.
Below are some of the most common STDs and one fact you should know about them:
1. Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
Studies have found the HPV vaccine to be effective. Unfortunately, only 43 percent of U.S. teens are actually completing their vaccinations. “Think of it kind of like the common cold of sex,” Wyand says.
“Almost everybody who has sex will have at least one HPV infection in their lifetime.” While it will go away on its own for most of us, sometimes it can develop into pre-cancer or cervical cancer. This is why it’s important to get screened. Ask your doctor for the test that’s right for you.
2. Genital Herpes
For some reason, people always like to crack jokes about getting herpes. But herpes, like everything else on this list, is no legit joke. According to the CDC, one in six people in the U.S. have herpes simplex virus type 2 (genital HSV-2 infection).
“But a majority are unaware of the infection due to symptoms that are often minor or [can be] confused with other common conditions,” Wyand says. Some symptoms to look out for include pain, itching, and small sores on your genitalia.
Did you know chlamydia is the most commonly reported STI in America? The troubling thing, though, is that most people with chlamydia have no symptoms at all, Wantuck says. In fact, 90 percent of women and 70 percent of men will NOT have any symptoms at all. If left untreated, it can put a woman at risk for pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) or infertility.
The one important thing to know about HIV is that one in four people in the U.S. who are HIV-positive don’t know it. So it’s important to get tested for HIV when you go to the doctor — even if it feels like a long shot — and always use protection.
5. Pubic Lice (“Crabs”)
Like herpes, pubic lice (also known as “crabs”) is another one of those things people like to joke about. While it may not be as bad as some of the other STIs on this list, it can be super uncomfortable.
“Although pubic lice is usually spread sexually, it’s possible to contract without sexual penetration by using infested towels or sheets, wearing infested clothing, or even using an infested toilet seat (though this is highly unlikely),” Wyand says. So be very mindful of that and always check/wash your sheets.
Gonorrhea rates have increased by more than 10 percent since 2010, and Wantuck explains that it’s becoming harder to treat due to antibiotic resistance. Even scarier?Gonorrhea can cause permanent infertility in women.
(Note: you might hear people refer to gonorrhea as “the clap” — here are a couple of interesting theories as to why.)
Wantuck explains that the first sign of syphilis is a painless sore on the genitals. He adds, “After it heals, the infection can go undiagnosed for months or even years while it wreaks havoc on your body.” If left untreated, syphilis can cause blindness, paralysis and even heart problems, among other things.
The importance of getting tested can’t be stressed enough. That’s why the American Sexual Health Association launched its YES Means TEST initiative, which aims to educate and empower young people to get tested for STIs.
“Just as it’s important to support everyone’s right to make a conscious, consensual choice to have sex, it’s also important to empower yourself and your friends to take charge of your sexual health and choose to get tested,” Wyand said.
Having sex can and should be fun. But it also comes with a lot of responsibility. Getting tested is the easiest and most important way to make sure you’re taking care of yourself. So go out there, get tested, and always use protection.