When we talk about sexual health, many of us get a little uncomfortable. But why? We aren’t afraid to talk about getting the flu virus or strep throat. Are chlamydia bacteria or herpes viruses actually that different? Of course not. But still there seems to be a taboo when it comes to talking about, and getting tested for, infections below the belt. We want to change that.
Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs): Bacterial vs. Viral
Even though prevalence rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis are at all-time highs, it’s not actually that big of a deal. All three of these common STIs are bacterial, so in most cases they can be easily cured with antibiotics and catching them early can prevent complications.
STIs that are viral, like herpes, human papilloma virus (HPV), and HIV, are treatable but not truly curable. Herpes and HPV are both very common. If you’ve ever had a cold sore or a wart, respectively, you’ve had a strain of these viruses. Most of the time we aren’t even aware that we have these viruses because the symptoms tend to be intermittent or minor, and some people don’t experience any symptoms at all.
Some do have complications, however, and if left untreated, these viruses can cause some long term health concerns. Like herpes and HPV, HIV can stay asymptomatic for long periods of time, so it’s possible to spread the virus long before you ever know anything is wrong. Newer treatments for HIV have had major success, but the virus can still lead to health concerns long-term.
Not everyone who is having sex necessarily needs to run out and get tested for every single STI. Infections don’t materialize; they have to come from somewhere. So, if you use condoms 100 percent of the time (or other barrier methods), or you’re in a monogamous relationship and your partner knows their STI status, you may have a lowered risk for many common STIs.
It’s still a good idea for all partners to get tested at least once a year, if not more often, to be sure asymptomatic infections don’t go undiagnosed. Additionally, if you’ve ever had symptoms of an STI, like sores in the genital area, abnormal discharge, itchiness, and burning or painful urination, it’s time to get tested. You may also want to get tested if you or your partners have ever used injectable drugs not prescribed by a doctor or shared needles, as these can impact risk levels for STIs.
If you’re unsure about your status or whether you should get tested, talk to your health care provider to determine what tests might be right for you and how you and your partners can protect yourselves in the future.
Wardenburg Health Services offers affordable STI testing on a walk-in basis at the lab or by appointment in the Medical Clinic and Women’s Clinic.
Additional sexual health resources like condoms, dental damns, and lube are available free to CU students in the Health Promotion Resource Center (UMC 411).
For more information, visit www.colorado.edu/health/sti