Three sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are on the rise and have reached an all-time high in the United States. You need to know how to protect yourself and tell a friend. Your health and life may be at stake.
What is an STI and how does it differ from an STD?
An STI stands for sexually transmitted infection. By definition an infection is “the process of infecting or the state of being infected.” This definition has nothing to do with if a person has symptoms or not. This is in contrast to a disease which is defined as, “a disorder of structure or function in a human, animal, or plant, especially one that produces specific signs or symptoms or that affects a specific location and is not simply a direct result of physical injury.”
An infection does not need to have any signs or symptoms, which may be why STIs are able to spread so easily. Many people falsely believe that if they feel fine, they must be healthy or “clean.” Unfortunately, many sexually transmitted infections are silent. They may have no symptoms unless they are left untreated for weeks or longer, but can still cause harm.
Which STIs are on the rise?
The three STIs that are on the rise are Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and Syphilis. Yes, Syphilis. I’ll bet that you haven’t heard of that one in a while. It is believed that many people have these infections and have no knowledge, but possibly due to the increased accessibility of testing, we are seeing the prevalence rise. According to the Center for Disease Control,
“Combined they total 2.4 million infections that were diagnosed and reported just in last year alone,” said Elizabeth Torrone, a CDC epidemiologist who worked on the new report, adding that the combined number marks “the most cases” ever recorded since monitoring began in the United States.
There are states that have higher rates of rise than others, namely Alaska, Mississippi, and Nevada. Interestingly, according to a CNN report referencing the CDC statistics, “[f]or each of those three diseases, rates in the District of Columbia were higher than all states.” Chlamydia and Gonorrhea have specific implications for pelvic wellbeing and fertility, potentially leading to a severe infection called pelvic inflammatory disease or worse. Syphilis can be deadly. It was actually the infection that was being studied in the infamous and horrendous Tuskeegee Experiment.
How can you protect yourself?
The good news is that all of these three infections are treatable, as long as you are not infected with a drug-resistant strain of Gonorrhea. The even-better news is that all three of these infections are PREVENTABLE. Barrier contraception is vitally important for STI prevention. Don’t get me wrong. I love hormonal birth control options, especially because condoms can fail. However, it is a mistake to solely use hormonal contraception and abandon barrier protection when STI risk is at stake.
With STIs on the rise, how often should you be screened?
I recommend STI screening with any new sexual partner both before and after intercourse has happened. I also offer regular, which for many is yearly, STI screening even if the person’s partner hasn’t changed. I don’t stress or force testing, but I don’t think that it is a sign of distrust to test periodically. My bias is that I have never given someone a positive STI test result who knew that they had an infection.
When I make that call to inform someone of positive STI result, they never say, “Oh, I knew that I had that, doc.” It’s always a surprise.
I once had a patient who I had seen for years and years. She used to see me multiple times per year for STI screening and often carried into the visit a fair amount of anxiety that she may have contracted an STI. One year I saw her and she seemed significantly more calm than the past. I couldn’t help but noticed this contrast. She volunteered that she had been much less worried than in the past.
“It’s because of you, Dr. McDonald.”
“Because I was dating and stressed about my possible risks of STIs with the people I was dating and you told me, ‘you know that you don’t have to have sex with all of them, right?’ I really took that to heart. I’ve been so much more calm. “
I didn’t even remember saying that. I was happy that my advice that was likely generated by trying to address the root of her anxiety ultimately helped her. I’m happy.