Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of columns discussing healthy relationships and sex lives from The Daily in partnership with the Gender + Equality Center, Goddard Health Center and Norman’s Adam & Eve. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Some people avoid going to the doctor, but serious medical issues like sexually transmitted diseases and infections are not things that should be ignored.
A sexually transmitted disease or infection, STD or STI, is bacteria or viruses that have the ability to be spread from person to person through unprotected intimate contact, according to The STD Project. The terms are now being used interchangeably.
The Daily spoke with Sara Raines, one of Goddard’s Sexual Peer Health Educators — also known as a Sexpert — for information on STIs.
What is the difference between an STI and an STD?
When people are talking about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), they’re generally referring to different viruses and bacteria that are transmitted through bodily fluids exchanged during sex (i.e., blood, semen, and vaginal fluid). This includes gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), herpes, HPV (human papillomavirus infection), trichomoniasis and hepatitis. Since all of these are actually infections initially, and not diseases, many people (including professional organizations) are making the transition to calling them STIs. When STIs go untreated for long periods of time, they can cause diseases like cervical cancer or pelvic inflammatory disease, so these would be STDs. However, most people use STI and STD interchangeably.
What is the most common misconception people have about STIs?
I think the one I run into the most is the idea that you only get an STI if you have a lot of sex partners, which is entirely untrue. Our culture views STIs as shameful, gross and dirty things that only happen when you’re promiscuous. But there is no magic number of sex partners that magically makes you become susceptible to STIs. Anybody can get an STI, whether they’re having sex with their first-ever partner or their 50th partner. If you have sex with someone who has an STI, there is a risk of you getting that STI. The key to preventing STI transmission isn’t to only ever have sex with one person — you can take steps to prevent transmission by using protection, getting tested often and sleeping with people who have been tested recently.
How would someone know if they have an STI? Can people self-diagnose?
It’s hard to know for sure that you have an STI until you get tested for it. Some signs that you should go in and get tested are if you’re having any pain, smells or discharge that’s abnormal for your body or if you’ve slept with someone recently who had an STI. Other symptoms to look out for are sores, bumps or itching. This isn’t just confined to genitals, though. If you’re having anal sex, then you can have symptoms in or around your anus, and if you’re performing oral sex, then you can experience these symptoms in or around your mouth and throat.
There are two reasons why trying to self-diagnose an STI is tricky. First, the most common symptom of an STI is no symptom at all. In sex education, some people get shown pictures of genitals covered in painful-looking bumps or oozing sores, so that’s what they think STIs look like. In reality, those are usually just cases that have gone untreated for a very long time. Since most people who have an STI don’t show any symptoms, it’s pretty hard to figure out whether you have an STI. The other reason is that if you are showing symptoms, it can still be hard to self-diagnose because lots of STIs share symptoms with each other and with other things. A bump on your groin could be syphilis or an ingrown hair; burning while peeing could be a number of STIs, or it could be a urinary tract infection; unusual discharge from the vagina could be gonorrhea or chlamydia, or it could be jock itch or a yeast infection. So, if anything seems different than usual, go have it checked out by a doctor. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
What are the best ways to proceed if someone thinks they have an STI?
If you think you have an STI, get to a clinic to have it checked out as soon as you can! There are tons of places that do STI testing, including Goddard, but you can also call 2-1-1 to find locations near you. Even if you wait long enough that your symptoms go away, that doesn’t mean that the STI went away (and that could even be a sign that the STI has progressed). The longer you wait, the harder it is to treat.
What resources are available on campus or at Goddard for students, staff or faculty who may have an STI?
Goddard has STI testing available, by walk-in or by appointment. Depending on what STIs you’re screening for, testing can involve a urine sample, blood sample, or a vaginal, throat, or anal swab. Once you get diagnosed with an STI, you can get your treatment at Goddard as well.
If you think you have an STI, it’s a good idea to use condoms to keep from giving that STI to a partner and to avoid getting another STI on top of the one you might already have — you can have multiple STIs at the same time. There are free condoms in Goddard, the HES (Health Exercise Science) bathrooms, the WGS (Women and Gender Studies) lobby, and in the GEC (Gender + Equality Center). Condoms prevent the exchange of bodily fluids, which is how they prevent the transmission of STIs. Birth control does not prevent STI transmission. You can use condoms for vaginal sex, anal sex, and oral sex (yes, you can get STIs in your mouth and throat). If the sex you’re having doesn’t involve a penis, you can use condoms on sex toys or you can cut them up the side to make a dental dam for oral sex as well.
How often should someone get tested for STIs and when should testing start?
The recommendations for testing vary. Once you’ve started having sex, whether you use protection or not, it’s a good idea to get tested at least once a year. If you’re having sex without protection or having sex with people who haven’t been tested for STIs recently, then it’s a good idea to get tested more often than that, like every three to six months or in between every new sex partner. Getting a pap test at the gynecologist is not the same thing as getting an STI test, but places that offer gynecological care can do STI testing as well. Other testing sites in the Norman/OKC area are the Cleveland County Health Department and Planned Parenthood. Getting tested for STIs doesn’t have to be a scary or embarrassing thing but rather just something you do to stay on top of your health and take care of yourself, like getting a checkup or going to the dentist.
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