When it comes to STIs, or sexually transmitted infections, most media attention is devoted to HIV and AIDS. But the reality is that these are just two of the many diseases that people can contract through all manner of sexual activity. The CDC estimates that there are about 50,000 new HIV infections in the U.S. every year. By contrast, there are more than 1.4 million new cases of chlamydia reported annually and over 350,000 cases of gonorrhea. All in all, if you are sexually active, your risk of catching an STI by age 25 is almost 50 percent.
The attention devoted to HIV, of course, is understandable. But Yvonne Koch, MD, an assistant professor of urology in the Columbia University Division of Urology at Mount Sinai Medical Center, says it’s important not to overlook other potential risks.
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“People should concern themselves with all STIs,” she says. “Bacterial infections like gonorrhea and chlamydia can often be treated with antibiotics, but STIs that have no cure are of more concern. These are viral infections like hepatitis, HIV, herpes and HPV. Some of these can lead to cancer. And hepatitis can cause liver disease, liver failure and cancer.”
This is of particular concern for the LGBT community, as the CDC notes that the rates of some STIs — including HIV and syphilis — are higher within this section of the population, particularly among gay men.
STIs can present themselves in various different ways. Some have clear and immediate symptoms, while others don’t show symptoms for a long time or even at all.
“Traditional common symptoms are rash on the genitals or elsewhere, genital discharge and genital sores,” says Jose G. Castro, MD, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “However, many STIs produce no symptoms, at least initially,” he says. “But [they] can still be spread to sexual partners.”
This risk emphasizes the importance of getting tested for STIs on a regular basis, perhaps even annually, notes Dr. Castro. And if you do notice any concerning symptoms that might be related to an STI, he suggests abstaining from sex and seeking qualified medical attention immediately.
While there are plenty of risks, the news isn’t all grim. The reality is that the same practical measures can help protect you from virtually all STIs, and most of these are fairly simple. The most obvious is to use condoms whenever you have sex, particularly when starting a new relationship or if you’re not in a monogamous relationship.
Even if your relationship is monogamous, it’s best to take some precautions before starting to have unprotected sex. As Dr. Castro noted, many people can have an STI and not display any symptoms. The only way to know your status for certain is with testing.
“Many couples who are committed to a monogamous relationship will have STI testing by their doctor prior to starting a new sexual relationship,” says Dr. Koch. “Don’t be afraid to ask for this!”