Problems “down there” are one of those things that you really don’t want to put much thought into, but ignoring risk factors and hoping that nothing goes wrong can take you into some seriously uncomfortable territory. Discomfort, skin eruptions or lesions, itching, and discharge are some of the least critical side effects of STDs. A variety of reproductive system disorders, including cancer, infertility, and other impairments, can interfere with your ability to have sex, have children, or go about your daily life, and may be irreversible.
Your high school sex-ed class may or may not have prepared you about what to expect and how to make informed choices when it comes to maintaining your own sexual health. Even if it did, chances are that you haven’t reviewed the topic or checked the latest research in recent years. Here are a few things that you might want to be aware of.
Increased exposure equals increased risk
An average of 20 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are recorded in the US every year. Half of those are recorded in teens and adults under the age of 25. The more sexual partners that you encounter, the higher your risk of having one of them pass on an STD.
If you don’t like those odds, there are a few proactive steps that you can take to lower your risk. From a purely mathematical standpoint, having sex with fewer partners lessens your risk of contracting an STD. Since human relationships are more complicated and challenging than statistical modeling, you may want to consider some alternative approaches.
One great tip is to arrange with prospective new sexual partners to get tested before starting a physical relationship. Regular STD testing is part of responsible self-care in adults, and STDs/STIs are too common to safely ignore this essential maintenance practice. Ideally, both you and your future sexual partners would be getting STD testing regularly enough that you could simply share your most recent test results with them before getting busy. If not, making a date out of it can build the anticipation and make it less of a chore.
You can also reduce your risk by using hygienic barriers during sex, such as male or female condoms. This is more effective against STDs than oral or implant-based contraceptives (which only address the baby-making side effects of sex), but doesn’t guarantee 100% protection, so even if you’re meticulous about using condoms, it’s important to regularly get checked out for STIs and STDs.
You don’t have to be showing to be spreading
STDs are diagnosed when you’re actually exhibiting symptoms of an infectious disease. You can also have an STI, which is when you’ve been infected but aren’t experiencing side effects. It might take a while for side effects to develop after you’ve been exposed and infected. Your body might be healthy enough to suppress symptoms, in which case they could show up if your immune system ever gets compromised.
You can also be a “carrier” – a person who never actually experiences side effects of STDs, but because they’re infected, they could be infecting everyone they have sex with without knowing it. Again, this is why it’s so important to make regular monitoring for STDs a part of your routine. If you’re in a monogamous relationship, you can probably get away with annual checkups along with your routine physical. If you and your partner or partners are increasing each other’s risk factors by having sex with additional partners, you need to be tested for STDs more frequently so that you can treat any infections right away and avoid spreading them any further.
It’s not just “down there” you need to worry about
Oral sex and all varieties of sexual activity can spread STDs. It’s not just vaginal intercourse that can spread infections. Use physical barrier-based protection such as condoms and oral dams to reduce risk.
Early treatment of STIs/STDs can reduce side effects, manage their spread, and sometimes even clear them up, but there is no preventative oral medication, and not all conditions can be cured. Most types of birth control are just that – effective in reducing the risk of pregnancy but of no value when it comes to preventing STIs. Physical, barrier-based contraception (condoms) are your best choice, and it’s worth making the effort to reduce your risk since treating some STIs is no easy matter. Schedule regular trips to get tested for STIs for both you and any sexual partners in your life to reduce and manage risk.