Safe sex is a concept that is tough to argue with, but it isn’t often well understood what exactly safe sex means. Are you safe if you simply use a condom? Will birth control provide any protection from sexually transmitted diseases? Can you vaccinate yourself against common sexually transmitted infections? Though you might think the answers to these questions are obvious, you should consider some statistics that indicate that many adults are uncertain about how to identify STDs, how to protect themselves, and how to seek treatment when symptoms are present. More than half of all people will have a sexually transmitted disease or infection at one point in their lives, and only a handful of STDs/STIs diagnosed are required to be reported to the state department and CDC, according to the American Sexual Health Organization. Therefore, even those who are well-informed about sexual health may be unaware of just how common a given illness and how prevalent it is in his or her community.
What prevents STDs (and what doesn’t)?
As with any illness, the best line of protection against STDs is prevention. Short of avoiding sexual activity altogether, there is no foolproof way to completely prevent sexually transmitted infections, but there are methods that can greatly reduce the risk. First, it’s essential to be open and honest with your partner. If you are aware of a disease that your partner has, such as herpes, you can take steps to avoid contracting the illness yourself—for example, refrain from sexual contact during an outbreak. Let’s take a look at some other protective measures and how they stack up against common STDs.
- Vaccines – Vaccines protecting against STDs are limited, but those that are available and in development can dramatically reduce potentially life-threatening illnesses. The HPV vaccine protects against the strains of the virus most commonly associated with cervical cancer, though this vaccine is only effective when given before early adulthood. In response to growing concerns of antibiotic resistance, there is also a vaccine in development for gonorrhea.
- Condoms – Physical barrier protection, such as condoms and rubber dams can prevent transmission of certain infections, but only in the areas that they cover. Diseases spread by secretions, such as chlamydia and syphilis are well protected against by condoms, but those transmitted by skin-to-skin contact like HPV are still areas of vulnerability, even with a condom.
- Birth control – Birth control in the form of oral contraceptives and intrauterine devices can be highly effective in preventing pregnancy, but these measures will offer no protection from STDs. That means that it’s still important to wear a condom, even if you are taking some form of hormonal birth control.
What are the signs of an STD?
Men and women may experience different STD symptoms, which can also vary depending on the specific infection. Generally, women should look for signs like vaginal rash or discharge, pain during sex, pain during urination, blisters or sores in the genital area, and pelvic discomfort. Men may notice painful ejaculation, swelling or pain in the testicles, itchiness or burning, spots or lesions, and painful urination. Any of these symptoms should be immediately addressed by a doctor, and it is also beneficial to see your doctor regularly for STD testing. Many STDs progress silently with an absence of symptoms or mild symptoms, such as flu-like fatigue and body aches, so screening is the only way to identify them before irreversible long-term damage occurs.
How are STDs treated?
Treatment of STDs is often simple, when the diagnosis comes early. Infections like gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia are treated with antibiotics, which are typically prescribed as an oral medication to be taken over several days or weeks. Viral infections are notoriously more difficult to cure, and they may necessitate treatment to simply reduce outbreaks and ease symptoms.
Though your sexual health is an important subject, it can feel embarrassing or uncomfortable to address it during your annual checkups. For treatment you can trust with exams available from the comfort of your own home, connect with a MeMD provider anytime from anywhere.