Alright ladies, it’s time to get serious for a second and talk about sexually transmitted diseases. Let’s talk about some stats and what you can do to protect yourself. The CDC estimated in 2017 there were almost 2.3 million new cases of reportable STDs. (HPV and herpes are not reportable so are not included in these numbers).
First, let’s start with the basics. STDs are diseases passed from one person to another during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Bacteria, viruses, or parasites cause serious health consequences if left untreated. The most common STDs among women are Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HPV. Symptoms of STDs vary. There are some common symptoms. Some of these include vaginal discharge, itching, burning, and pain during urination.
The best way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases is to practice safe sex
This means using condoms or dental dams during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Women can also lower their risk of contracting STDs by getting tested routinely. It is important to remember that many people with STDs do not show symptoms. So even if you feel fine, you may still have an STD.
If you do contract an STD, it’s essential to get tested and treated as soon as possible. Many STDs are curable with antibiotics, but some are only manageable with medication. It’s important to follow your doctor’s instructions. Be sure to attend follow-up appointments to ensure that the infection is gone. Some STDs can have serious long-term consequences if left untreated. For example, HPV can cause cervical cancer. Untreated syphilis can lead to dementia, blindness, and other neurological problems. That’s why it’s crucial to get tested and seek treatment if you suspect you have an STD.
What should you do if you are exposed to an STD?
GO GET TESTED! Your Gynecologist or Primary Care Provider can do testing for you. If you need a free or more anonymous option, look for a free health clinic. Finally, having an open conversation with your partner about STDs is essential. If you’re sexually active, it’s imperative to get tested regularly. Use condoms or dental dams during sex. Don’t hesitate to ask your partner about their sexual history and testing. Remember that STDs can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or sexual orientation.
How is testing done?
- Via a vaginal swab. Then either by looking at the sample under a microscope or in the office.
- Testing for Gonorrhea and Chlamydia is done via a cervical swab during a pelvic exam or by a urine sample. If you are due for a pap smear, it can also be done on the same swab by request.
- You can test for HPV during a pap smear, usually for women over the age of 30.
- Swabbing an active lesion is how you test for Herpes.
- Blood tests are another options. Generally, they are not recommended unless you are having symptoms. A blood draw is the test of choice for HIV, hepatitis, and syphilis.
How do you treat sexually transmitted diseases?
- Antibiotics will treat and cure trichomonas, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis.
- You cannot treat HPV with medication. Its presence is monitored with pap smears and colposcopies (exam with biopsies of the cervix). If it is causing abnormalities of the cervix, excisional procedures can be done.
- The symptoms of herpes can be controlled and suppressed by oral medication but your body will always carry the herpes virus.
- Same with HIV. While medications can help control the virus and sometimes even suppress it to undetectable levels, HIV cannot be cured (yet). If you think you may have an STD – STOP HAVING SEX and GET YOURSELF TESTED to ensure you don’t pass it on to others!
What happens if I don’t get treatment?
Half of the reported cases were diagnosed in young adults ages 15-24. The most common reportable sexually transmitted disease was chlamydia affecting 1.7 million people. Many STDs don’t have obvious symptoms, and if left untreated can cause serious problems especially in women. Chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause a serious pelvic infection called pelvic inflammatory disease or PID. PID can cause damage to the fallopian tubes which leads to increased risk of ectopic pregnancy, chronic pelvic pain, and even infertility. The CDC estimates that undiagnosed STDs cause infertility in more than 20,000 women per year!
What the heck is HPV and what you need to know
My children are my everything. Like any mom, I would do anything and everything in my power to keep them safe and healthy. For me, this means vaccinating against HPV. HPV is Human Papilloma Virus. It’s the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States with an estimated prevalence of 42%. However, this is thought to be a gross underestimation of actual HPV exposure. It is generally believed that 80-90% of sexually active men and women have been exposed to HPV in their lifetime.
So ladies, hear this: HPV is EVERYWHERE, and it is almost impossible to avoid if you are a normal, healthy, sexual human being. There is no shame in a diagnosis of HPV. You are not alone because virtually EVERYONE has carried an HPV virus at some point. Most HPV infections are transient and gone quickly. But occasionally, HPV can persist and lead to precancerous or cancerous changes most commonly in the cervix in women. 260,000 women die of cervical cancer every year worldwide. HPV can also cause anal cancer, penile cancer, oral cancer, and throat cancer.
How to protect yourself against HPV
- Get your PAP smears and follow up exams as recommended on schedule. The whole point of Pap smears, colposcopies, LEEPs, and everything else is to PREVENT you from getting cervical cancer.
- Wear condoms – this can decrease risk of HPV transmission but not eliminate.
- Don’t smoke. Smokers with HPV are 4 times more likely to get cervical cancer than nonsmokers.
- Get your Gardasil 9 vaccine series. Gardasil 9 covers 2 low risk HPV strains that can cause genital warts and 7 high risk strains that can cause cancer. It is estimated that HPV infections have decreased 60-70% in certain populations since Gardasil came out in 2006. Gardasil is a 3 shot series (2 shots in those <15 years old) and is approved for people ages 9-45. All boys and girls should start their series at age 11-12. This is a vaccine that actually DECREASES RISK OF CANCER!! It’s a no-brainer. I got my Gardasil series 11 years ago. My sons will get theirs on schedule. Because I love them, they will be part of the solution and not the problem.
How can I protect myself against sexually transmitted diseases?
The only way to 100% prevent STDs is abstinence. But we all know that abstinence is generally not a realistic expectation. So the next best things are:
- Doing your best to maintain a monogamous relationship with a partner who’s had negative STD testing. Although, I’m a gynecologist, and I see real life. Real life is complicated, so I still offer everyone annual STD screening – relationship, married, or single. I am completely non-discriminatory.
- Regular, reliable, and correct condom use (male or female condoms but not both at the same time) can significantly decrease, but not eliminate risk of STDs. This means condom use every time from the very beginning. No messing around just a little first. Condom first, then insert.
- HPV vaccination. Do I need to say it louder? GET YOUR HPV VACCINATION. Keep in mind, there are some STDs that cannot be easily prevented with condoms. Herpes and trichomonas can reside in areas that aren’t covered by condoms and therefore, easily transmitted even with appropriate condom use. Bottom line – be smart, protect yourself, know your partner, and GET YOUR HPV VACCINE!
Knowledge is power
In conclusion, knowledge is power when it comes to sexually transmitted diseases. As women, we must take charge of our sexual health. It is vital to make informed decisions about our bodies. Remember, there is no shame in being sexually active or seeking treatment for an STD. Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor or partner about STDs – your health and well-being are worth it.