Sex can be a wonderful part of life, but like most things it isn’t risk-free. According to a recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more sexually transmitted infections (STIs) continued to hit record high rates for the fifth year in a row. Particularly, there’s been a 19% increase in chlamydia, a 63% increase in gonorrhea and a 71% increase in syphilis since 2014.
By the time they’re 24, nearly one-third of sexually active adults will have some form of STI. Yet there’s still a level of shame and stigma surrounding STIs that prevents people from getting the treatment they need and continues the spread of these conditions.
“Infections don’t discriminate. They affect people from every class, race, culture and creed,” says Phillis Mims-Gillum, M.D., an OB/GYN physician specializing in sexual health at Henry Ford Health. “Fortunately, most STIs are not life-threatening when they are diagnosed early and treated appropriately.”
If you’ve been recently diagnosed, don’t run for cover. You can live a long, healthy, happy life with an STI. Your best bet: Take these six steps to minimize the impact of STIs and keep your sexual partners safe.
- Resist the urge to self-treat. “People often try to self-treat with medicated douches, perfume soaps or triple antibiotic ointments,” Dr. Mims-Gillum says. “And while those things may make symptoms subside a bit, they don’t cure the infection.” In most cases, doctors can easily treat STIs, but it’s not something you can do at home on your own. Even if symptoms subside from home-based treatments, lingering bacteria can lead to scarring and even infertility.
- Get tested. If you suspect you have an STI or discover your partner is infected, get tested – even if you don’t have any symptoms. Some STIs, including chlamydia and HPV, often don’t produce any visible symptoms. Others have symptoms that come and go, even though the infection is still in your system. “Most STI tests require only a blood sample, urine sample or a simple swab,” Dr. Mims-Gillum says. If you’re comfortable with your primary care physician, you can ask them for STI tests. Otherwise, search online for free and low-cost STI testing in your area. Planned Parenthood, for example, offers STI screenings and treatments and can work with you on the price, especially if you don’t have insurance. You can also contact your local health department.
- Ask for a comprehensive evaluation. Even if you think you were tested for everything, most doctors only screen for the most common infections (gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis and HIV). Unless you specifically ask, many doctors won’t automatically check for herpes, HPV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C, all of which may be sexually transmitted
- Talk to your partners. If you get a positive test result, inform your recent sexual partners, including anyone you’ve had sexual contact with over the previous six months, even if you used barriers. But avoid playing the blame game. “Move away from the space of being emotionally hurt by the diagnosis and into a space where you’re addressing the problem,” Dr. Mims-Gillum says.
- Avoid sex. No matter when you received your STI diagnosis, avoid sex if you have any symptoms, including pain, burning, tingling or visible sores. Sometimes infections can linger and you don’t want to unknowingly infect or reinfect your partner.
- Get support. Navigating a newly diagnosed STI can be frightening. Whether it’s something that’s easily cured with a quick doctor’s visit or is a lifelong infection, it’s normal to feel nervous, embarrassed and afraid. Ask your doctor for help or search online for STI support groups.
While finding out you have an STI can be a painful and unpleasant surprise, you owe it to yourself to get tested. Most STIs can be cured, and when they can’t, your doctor can provide workable solutions for disease management. The key, of course, is seeing a doctor at the first sign of trouble.
“Most importantly, remember that having an STI doesn’t make you dirty, broken or defective,” Mims-Gillum says. Instead, view it as a health matter like any other that deserves to be addressed.
Concerned you may have an STI? To find a primary care provider or make an appointment online, visit henryford.com. Or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Dr. Phillis Mims-Gillum is an OB/GYN who specializes in sexual health and sexuality counseling, and sees patients for these conditions at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital. Call (248) 661-6425 to schedule an appointment.