April is Youth STI Awareness Month.
Sexually transmitted infections — also known as STDs — are diseases that are passed from one person to another through sexual contact. These include chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes, human papillomavirus, syphilis, and HIV. Many of these STIs do not show symptoms for a long time. Even without symptoms they can still be harmful and passed on during sex. They are spread through having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the infection. It is even possible to get an STI without “going all the way.” Some STIs, like herpes and HPV, are spread by skin-to-skin contact. STIs are common, especially among young people. The fastest growing age group for STIs behind adolescents is the elderly. Research has shown that STIs are lowest in states that provide education regarding STIs.
According to the North Dakota Epidemiology report in 2016, chlamydia was reported 3,463 times. This was a 9 percent increase from 2014-2015. Of the reported cases, 63 percent were females. Chlamydia must be treated with antibiotics. If left untreated it can have long-term complications. In females, chlamydia can spread to other reproductive organs (uterus, fallopian tubes) causing pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), an infection inside the uterus, or infertility, the inability to have children.
The second most common STI is gonorrhea. The rate of gonorrhea has increased in North Dakota 46 percent from 2015 to 2016. Incidence was split relatively evenly between males and females.
Signs of an STI are variable. Some people have an odor, itching, or discharge from their genitals. Some don’t have any symptoms. The only way to know if you have an STI is to get tested. Most clinics have the ability to test for STIs, or can refer you to the nearest testing facility. The testing is easy. Most can be done with a urine sample, blood sample or a cotton-tip swab.
Most infections can be treated with antibiotics. Some like HIV or herpes can be suppressed with antiviral medications so you don’t have symptoms but can still be spread through skin to skin, or bodily fluid contact with your partner. If you get a bacterial infection and are treated, you can get it again. The prior infection does not protect you against reinfection.
Prevention is the key to not getting an STI. The most reliable way to avoid infection is to not have sex. If you are never exposed to an infection you can’t get one.
Get vaccinated. Some infections such as Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and hepatitis B (Hep B) have vaccines. Both males and females can be vaccinated against HPV, and all school aged youths should be vaccinated against hepatitis B.
Reduce your number of sex partners. This can decrease your risk for STIs. It is important that you and all your partners be tested, and that you share your test results with one another.
Mutual Monogamy. This means that you agree to be sexually active with only one person, who has agreed to be sexually active only with you. Being in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner is one of the most reliable way to avoid STIs.
Use condoms. The correct and consistent use of the male latex condom is highly effective in reducing STI transmission. Use a condom every time you have anal, vaginal, or oral sex. Remember that condoms are the only method that works in two ways, to prevent both STIs and unintended pregnancies.
Shannon Shepherd, CNM, is a certified nurse/midwife at CHI St. Alexius Health Williston.