April Is STD Awareness Month — Here’s Everything You Didn’t Know About STDs
Think back to your middle school sex ed class. Before you learned how to put a condom on a banana (and that’s if you were lucky—sex ed is majorly lacking in the U.S., but that’s a blog post for another day), you might’ve had a unit about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and infections (STIs—and don’t worry, we’ll explain the difference in a sec). Your gym teacher may have revved up the ol’ projector and showed you exactly what different types of STDs look like on blown-up pictures of genitals to a chorus of gasps and giggles. But after the lights came back on and the images were taken down, you probably had little to no thoughtful discussion around what STDs are, what causes them, and how to treat them.
That lack of information (and the stigmatization) is exactly why we’re talking about STDs today. April is STD Awareness Month, and according to the CDC, the United States saw nearly 68 million STIs in 2018—roughly one in five people.
Instead of whispering about STDs in hushed tones or, even worse, laughing them off, it’s time to talk facts. Here’s what to know about common STDs and STIs, what to do if you have one, and how to talk to current or past partners about your sexual health.
What is an STD?
A sexually transmitted disease is an infection that’s spread from one person to another, usually during sexual intercourse (of any kind—oral, vaginal, or anal), and manifests with certain identifiable symptoms. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are super similar; however, an STI is only considered a disease when it causes symptoms, at which point it’s classified as an STD.
In most cases, STI is the more accurate term, since the majority of STIs don’t exhibit any symptoms. Or, put another way: all STDs begin as STIs. Once clear and visible symptoms are present, an STI becomes an STD. Since STI is considered a more inclusive term, we’ll use that going forward in this blog post.
What are common types of STIs and STDs?
Common types of STDs and STIs include chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B, herpes, human papillomavirus, and syphilis. Possible symptoms for women might include:
- Bumps, sores, or rashes in or around the genital area
- Changes in the amount of, color, or smell of vaginal discharge
- Unusual vaginal bleeding or spotting between periods or after sex
- Painful or burning urination
- Pain during vaginal or anal penetration
- Pelvic pain
Since symptoms can take a long time to appear (if they even show up at all), getting tested regularly is incredibly important in order to stay on top of your sexual health. In addition to regular yearly screenings, it’s recommended to get tested anytime you’ve had sex without a barrier method (like a condom); when you’ve had sex with a new partner (or if you’re planning to); if you have multiple partners; or if you think you’ve been exposed to an STI.
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What should I do if I think I have an STI?
First, get tested. One tricky thing to note: STIs have incubation periods, which means that they don’t show up on test results right away. These incubation periods vary from a few days (for chlamydia and gonorrhea) to months or years (for HPV and syphilis). Your best bet is to call your health care provider and ask for their advice.
If your test comes back negative, it’s okay to breathe a quiet sigh of relief—but your sexual health is something to continue to keep a pulse on. In fact, now’s the time to have a heart-to-heart with your doctor. Ask them about the best STI screening schedule for you, based on your sex life.
You can also discuss the best ways for you to reduce your risk of STIs, whether that’s by adding barrier methods (like condoms) or taking pre-exposure prophylaxis. Remember, taking your birth control pill daily is great for preventing pregnancy—but it doesn’t do anything for protection against STIs. Take your health into your own hands, and plan accordingly.
If your test comes back positive, take a moment for yourself to feel your feelings. Yes, we’re fully for ending the stigma around STIs, but it’s still difficult to hear any kind of medical diagnosis. Know that you’re not alone, and that having an STD or STI has absolutely nothing to do with who you are as a person.
Your doctor will work with you to make a treatment plan, which could be as simple as taking a single dose of an antibiotic. Other STIs and STDs will require different treatments or possibly more testing; your doctor will explain all of your options here.
Next up: hitting pause on your sex life. You probably expected this, but it’s not a good idea to have any type of sex while you’re actively experiencing an STI, since you could infect your partner(s). Your doctor will give you the green light when you’re good to resume any sexual activities.
And speaking of partners—yup, you’ve gotta have the talk. You might be nervous or scared of their reaction, but think of it this way: being open and honest about your STI is by far the kindest, most humane thing you can do for your partner. You’d want them to do the same for you if the tables were turned. Remember, millions of people experience STIs every day, and you’re far from the only person in the world who’s ever had to have this conversation. Planned Parenthood has some helpful tips for starting that conversation here.
Why is there a stigma around STIs?
Ugh, we wish we had an easy answer for this one. It’s tricky, because as we mentioned earlier STIs are incredibly common. But no one’s talking about them—and that silence often scares people into not getting tested regularly, which only serves to make STIs even more widespread.
In general, our society is super close-lipped and judgmental about sex—a not-so-winning combination, if you ask us. And sexually transmitted infections and diseases are often seen as a reflection of someone’s morality or their value as a human. So if someone has chlamydia, society can be quick to condemn them as a “dirty” person. A person with herpes might be teased for being slutty (even though news flash: it only takes one person to transmit an STI, and it can happen in a monogamous relationship). This type of judgment is absolutely, 100 percent wrong, and we can't stand for it.
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CDC: About STD Awareness Week
Planned Parenthood: Sexually transmitted infections
Healthline: The One Difference Between STIs and STDs — and How to Minimize Your Risk
VeryWell Health: STDs Are Socially Stigmatized
CDC: Adolescents and Young Adults
Healthline: Who Should Take PrEP, and Why?
Planned Parenthood: How do I talk with my partner about STD testing?