i know, i know – sexually transmitted diseases (aka STDs) are not particularly something you want to be reading about in your free time, but since the standards of sex ed in most countries are below the low, it's exactly what you should be doing right now.
i started investigating the topic when i decided to focus on STD prevention for a school project; and have been annoying my friends with warnings and scary facts whenever we discuss our sex/love lives ever since. it always surprises me how little knowledge many young people have of the issue, and how much of a mysterious no-no topic it is for many. that's why i decided to write this very brief summary of important info about the most common STDs. i am no doctor/specialist, so all the info you can find here is based on my own Internet research and talking to my gynaecologist. still, it's better than nothing, right?
first, we need to bust a couple of myths:
'only promiscuous people get STDs'
no, no, NO. sure, the more people you have sex with, the more exposed you are to the nasty bacteria and viruses, but literally anyone can get an STD, regardless of how many partners they sleep/have slept with. STDs also don't pick between sexes, genders, sexualities, races etc., so no one is really safer than others.
'STDs can only be transmitted during penetrative sex'
oral sex, and even rubbing genitals against each other can also transmit STDs. you can even get chlamydia in your throat, so... again, you can reduce the risk during fellatios (aka blowjobs) by using condoms.
'if i don't see any symptoms on my body, i'm fine' or 'i should only get tested when there's something wrong with me'
if only it was that easy! the symptoms don't always appear, so you might go years with the infection in your body without showing any signs. furthermore, the incubation time differs with each disease, so it might take a long time before anything comes up.
'getting diagnosed with an STD is already really embarrassing, i should not tell anyone else'
first of all, STDs are not embarrassing. they happen, they are normal, time to move on now. secondly, it is important to tell your current and ex partners you have been diagnosed to prevent further spreading of the disease.
'if i use condoms, i'm completely safe'
some STDs, like HPV for example, can infect even those areas you cannot cover with a condom, therefore the risk of transmission is still there! also, condoms are not always used correctly, which also reduces their protective ability.
'if i get an STD, my (sex) life is over'
most STDs can be treated, or at least all the unpleasant symptoms (like itching, warts, discharge) can be rid of. you might have to refrain from sex for the time you get your treatment, but that is not forever. however, if you know you are still infectious (= when you have been diagnosed with HPV, HIV or herpes), you need to inform your partners prior to the intercourse.
'STDs are disgusting, filthy and definitely not normal'
STDs are the most normal thing, literally. majority of people will have one (or more) at some point of their lives, often undiagnosed. sorry to break it for you, but if you get one, you're not special : )
'if i get the Cervarix vaccine, i don't need to worry about HPV anymore'
sadly, no. Cervarix, the vaccine mostly used in the Czech Rep, only protects against the HPV strains 16 and 18, which are the most common to blame for cervical cancer, but does not protect you against genital warts caused by HPV 4 and 9. Gardasil and Gardasil 9, similar vaccines that are also available on the market, can protect you against most kinds of warts – however, there's still lots of strains no vaccine will protect you against.
now that we sorted that out, let's get to all the things you should do to prevent STDs:
and not only after an unprotected cheeky session or when you feel like there's something wrong with your genitals. get tested regularly. as i've said before, it takes a while for some diseases to incubate, so it's better to get tested every now and then to be 100% sure.
talk about sexual health with your partners
make sure you know about the STD records of your current partner(s) and inform them about your own sexual health. if you're unsure of someone's health, always use protection; if they refuse to do so, back out – better safe than sorry!
as i just said: always protect yourself with partners about whose sexual health you cannot be 100% sure. if they refuse to do so, refuse to have sex with them, as easy as that.
keep yourself informed about all the diseases and, pretty please, educate the others!
keep your toys clean
if you share sex toys with your partners, don't forget to take proper care of them and clean them after each use – they can transmit diseases too.
let's do a quick summary of the most common STDs you can come across now:
– bacterial infection which can infect vagina/penis/cervix/urethra/eye/throat
– symptoms include abnormal discharge, painful urinating, swelling, bleeding
– often has no symptoms!
– if untreated, it can lead to problems with fertility in women
incubation time: 5–14 days
transmission: vaginal/anal/oral sex
symptoms: discharge from penis/vagina, burning pain when urinating, pain/swelling in testicles, rectal pain, bleeding
how is it tested: urine samples, swabs from genitalia
curable*: yes (but repeated infection is common)
do condoms protect: yes
(however, a mother can transmit it to an unborn child!)
(* 'curable' means if the body gets fully rid of the bacteria/virus)
– 'the clap'
– the most common symptoms are abnormal (smelling) discharge and painful urinating
– symptoms might only appear after the infection has spread to other body parts
– if left untreated, it can cause reduced fertility in all sexes
incubation time: 2–5 days (sometimes up to 30 days)
transmission: vaginal/anal/oral sex, very close physical contact (not that common)
symptoms: discharge, pain/burning sensation when urinating, irritation, tenderness, itching
how is it tested: urine samples, swabs from genitalia
do condoms protect: yes
– two types: HSV-1 and HSV-2
– often shows up as sores and blisters on genitalia and/or mouth
– the symptoms can be treated but keep on recurring for the rest of the life
incubation time: 2–15 days
transmission: vaginal/anal/oral sex, kissing, touching affected areas
HSV-1: cold sores, blisters
HSV-2: can have no symptoms for many; genital pain, flu-like symptoms, red bumps around the genitals or mouth, later developing into crusty, painful blisters
how is it tested: blood tests, swabs from the sores
curable: no; symptoms can be treated be often reoccur
do condoms protect: yes; however, (oral) contact with the sores can transmit the disease
– bacterial infection causing open sores
– has 3 stages throughout which the symptoms are spreading over the body
– if untreated, it can cause serious damage to mental health and the brain and nerves
incubation time: 1 week – 3 months
transmission: vaginal/anal/oral sex, intimate touching/kissing
1st stage (3 weeks after exposure): painless ulcers (or 'chancres') (in mouth or rectum)
2nd stage (weeks/months later): spreading sores, rash, sore throat, loss of energy, hair loss
3rd stage (1 year – decades later, very rare these days): arthritis, damaged brain, nerves, heart, liver,...
how is it tested: blood tests, if a sore has already appeared > swab tests
do condoms protect: yes; but can still be transmitted by touching affected areas
= Human Papilloma Virus
– there are plenty (over 70) strains of HPV, only some of which can cause cervical cancer or genital warts
– the most common STD, pretty much every sexually active person will contract it at some point > the body often fights it off without any serious complications
– vaccines (Gardasil, Cervarix) can prevent cervical cancer and genital warts, but do not protect against all HPV strains!
– the strains that cause genital warts do not cause cancer
– all kinds of warts and cancers can be treated!
incubation time: 1 month – several years
transmission: vaginal/anal/oral sex, skin-to-skin contact; even when the infected person shows no symptoms
symptoms: often no symptoms (however, the virus is actively present in the body); some strains cause genital warts (on vulva, cervix, penis, anus, mouth or throat; cauliflower-looking, painless, sometimes itchy)
how is it tested: pap smears from cervix (important to get them annually!), inspection of warts; cannot be tested through urine or blood
curable: no (symptoms may disappear but the virus stays in the body)
do condoms protect: partially; the virus can affect areas that cannot be covered by condoms
– HIV (= Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that attacks the immune system, which can (but often doesn't!) later develop into AIDS (= Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), during which your immune system is already severely damaged
– the so-called PrEP medicine (marketed as 'Truvada') can lower your chance of getting infected if taken daily
– PEP antiretroviral medicine is taken in emergency situations after being potentially exposed to HIV to prevent getting it. it needs to be taken 72 hours after the possible exposure – it pretty much works like the contraceptive 'morning after' pill.
– once diagnosed, you will receive antiretroviral therapy (ART) to reduce the spreading of the virus in your body
incubation time: a couple of days – 3 months
(however, the HIV antibodies can only be detected by tests after at least 3 weeks of transmission)
transmission: vaginal/anal/oral sex, needle/syringe use, mother-to-child contraction (also through breast feeding)
symptoms: fever, fatigue, rash, swelling, sore muscles/throat, chills, night sweats
how is it tested: blood tests
do condoms protect: yes
– hepatitis A, B, D, E can be transmitted through sexual contact (amongst many other ways)
– type B can be prevented through vaccination
incubation time: 2 weeks – 5 months
transmission: vaginal/anal/oral sex, contact with contaminated blood or water/food
symptoms: flu-like symptoms, dark urine, jaundice (yellow skin and eyes)
how is it tested: blood tests
curable: type B, C, D – no; A & E – self-limiting
do condoms protect: partially; it can still be contracted through contaminated fluids
bacterial vaginosis & yeast infection
– both are not typical STDs but rather health issues caused by imbalance in vagina, resulting in discharge and other problems
(i included them because they can greatly affect one's sexual health too)
– bacterial vaginosis is caused by overgrowth of germs normally found in vagina
– yeast infection (or 'candidiasis') is caused by a natural fungus Candida albicans which can be spread through sexual contact and can affect any moist area of one's body
– yeast infection is very common and easy to treat
incubation time: 1–3 months
cause: imbalance of 'good' and 'bad' bacteria in vagina which can be caused by, for example, recent change of sexual partner, copper coil contraception, or even bubble baths, as well as poor immune system, stressful life periods or chronic diseases
symptoms: smelling discharge, itching, soreness, burning, rash
how is it tested: pelvic exam
do condoms protect: partially
– tiny mites that lay eggs in the skin and cause a lot of itching
– most widespread skin disease in children
incubation time: 4–6 weeks
transmission: holding hands, sleeping in infested bedding, wearing infested clothes
symptoms: strong itching, rash (often in patches), tiny blisters, scales
how is it tested: inspection of the rash
do condoms protect: no
and last but not least: STD testing!
how often should i get tested?
whenever you find any of the symptoms listed above, obviously, and do that as soon as you can. but even if your body does not show any signs of STDs, it is really important to get tested regularly as many STDs come symptomless. i'd say getting tested every 6 months if you have multiple partners over the time (even if you use protection) is ideal; many experts recommend getting tested at least (!) once a year.
how soon after having unprotected sex should i get tested?
it is often advised to wait 1 month after the intercourse to make sure all major STDs have incubated already. however, some STDs might only incubate after several months or years even though your tests were negative.
where can i do it?
there are special STD prevention centres in pretty much every hospital, a quick search online will show you all the nearby places where you can get tested. your gynaecologist should also do the tests – and don't forget to get pap smears regularly (those of you who have a cervix, of course)!
do i need to get an appointment?
it is better to do so because you'll avoid a lot of waiting, but most STD testing places offer walk-ins too.
will i have to pay?
you don't have to pay in most countries, however it depends on where you get treated.
will it be anonymous?
unfortunately, STD tests are often not anonymous, but don't worry, your information will stay confidential.
how does it work?
you come to the doctor's office and answer a few questions about your sex life (e.g. which kinds of sex do you have, when was the last time you had unprotected sex, if you have been diagnosed with an STD before, if you have any symptoms etc.); and then the doctor will proceed to do the tests. depending on the diseases you are tested for, it can be a blood test, a urine sample, swabs or examination of the genitals. the whole testing session will take 30 minutes maximum.
when and how will i get the results?
it usually takes a week or 10 days to get the results. sometimes you need to come to the office to pick them up in person, but often you can just call them and ask.
what if i test positive for some STD?
no need to worry – you will receive a treatment straight away. you will have to take a break from having sex for a while and take meds or use ointments on affected areas. it is important to go through all steps of the treatment to prevent health complications and further spreading to your current and future partners!