It’s not a conversation most of us are eager to have. In fact, chances are that you may have either avoided it completely or stumbled through an inadequate version at least once in your life. But let’s face it: for the huge majority of American adults who have sex before getting married, it’s a talk people need to be having. We’re referring, of course, to talking to a potential partner about STDs…as in, could you have one? Have you been tested?
Know the Facts
It can be tempting to think that you couldn’t possibly get an STD, that they are uncommon, or that your partner “would know” if there was a problem. Unfortunately, none of these things are true! Sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs (now often known as STIs, or sexually transmitted infections) are VERY common. They can affect anyone who is sexually active, and it is very, very possible to have one without knowing it. (In fact, experts say that up to 90% of people with herpes don’t realize they have the infection.) They are especially common in young people. About half of all sexually active people get one by age 25! The five most common STIs are HPV (human papillomavirus), chlamydia, trichomoniasis, gonorrhea, and herpes.
There is no denying that STIs can cause serious problems, including organ damage, infertility, cancer, chronic pain, birth defects, and even death. At other times, their effects may also be very minor. Fortunately, STIs are treatable with medication, although not all are curable. With such a range of infections, every situation is different. What’s important is to be aware, use preventative measures, get tested, and get treated if needed.
How to Talk About It
So, you’re in a new relationship, and it looks like things are going to get sexual. How do you have “the talk”? While it isn’t easy, don’t put it off or avoid it (for all the reasons we just went into above!) Instead, just bring it up—clearly, but calmly. These suggestions might help.
- If you’ve been tested, say so, and ask if your partner will do the same
- Remind your partner that knowing you’re both negative will help you relax and enjoy being together
- Tell your partner you care about him or her and want the both of you to stay healthy
- Suggest getting tested together
- Don’t forget to talk about your ground rules in the relationship (is it monogamous? What kind of birth control and STD protection will you use?)
How to Prevent STIs
Abstinence is the only 100% reliable way to prevent all STIs. In fact, some STIs, such as herpes and HPV, can be spread even without having sex. (French kissing and touching breasts and genitals with hands are low-risk activities, but oral sex, genital/genital contact, and sharing sex toys can all spread infection, along with vaginal sex and anal sex.) However, if you do choose to be sexually active, there are ways you can reduce your risk.
- Use condoms
Condom usage reduces the risk of transmission substantially. To be effective, a condom must be worn every time you have sex—no exceptions. Remember, even if you test negative, some STIs take a while to show up.
- Get tested
Know your status. Don’t assume that you “must have been tested” because you’ve been to a doctor (or OB-GYN) recently. Unless you know for sure you’ve been tested, you probably haven’t.
Testing is easy (can often be done with just a urine sample) and is typically available inexpensively at many health clinics. Visit Get Tested to find a testing location near you. Keep in mind that STIs can take from 1 to 9 weeks after exposure to show up on a test.
- Stay monogamous in your relationship
Agreeing to stay faithful within your relationship gives you much better odds. Make sure you make your stance on this clear at the start of the relationship.
- Get vaccinated for HPV
HPV, or Human Papilloma Virus, is extremely common and often does not cause obvious symptoms. Although most people with HPV will get rid of the infection on their own, some women and men who get it can develop cancer of the cervix, anus, vagina, penis, vulva, or throat. The CDC recommends that teens over age 11 and young people up to age 21 (men) and age 26 (women) get the HPV vaccine, which can prevent these cancers.
- Avoid drinking and drug use at times when you might be sexual
Alcohol and drugs can impair your judgment, and you might end up making unsafe decisions you could regret later.
- Don’t use IV drugs
IV drug usage can spread diseases like HIV and hepatitis B and C. These infections can then be passed on to partners through sex.
- Go to a doctor if you think you could have an STI—and get treated!
If you’re experiencing symptoms in the genital area, such as pain, burning, sores, rashes, or discharge, go to a doctor. Explain your concerns and ask for a test. If you’re diagnosed, follow the recommended course of treatment. This may seem obvious, but not everyone does it!
If You’re Already Positive
For many people, especially those living with herpes, HPV, or HIV, “Could I have an STD?” is no longer the issue. Instead, the concern is how to tell potential partners about your status. Though this can definitely seem difficult, it is a situation that millions of people have faced and overcome.
Remember, sharing your status with your partner is the right thing to do. It’s loving, responsible, and will keep both you and your partner safe. (If your partner contracts your STI, he or she could reinfect you even if you are being treated.) You should also know that in some states, not sharing your positive status with your partner can be against the law.
People living with long-term STIs such as HPV, herpes, and HIV often report that dates and partners have been extremely understanding and receptive to honest discussions. Remember, abstinence and partial abstinence are options, but if this is not your choice, you can discuss with your doctor how to ensure that you partner stays safe. If it turns out your partner can’t handle being with someone with an STI, they may not have been the right choice anyway.
If Your Test Ends Up Positive
If you do test positive while in a relationship, don’t panic. Speak with your health care provider about exactly what you need to do to treat the infection and make sure it goes away. Talk to your current partner—and other recent partners. If needed, seek out support from groups designed for people living with STIs.
Also, don’t assume your partner has been cheating on you. It might be that you had the infection from a previous partner, or that your partner had it before you got together and it’s just showing up now. Ask your doctor for more details about your specific situation.
STIs can be a tough subject, but unless you are sexually abstinent, this is a discussion you need to have. The sites and resources below can help provide you with more information and ideas for how to talk about it. Stay safe out there!
STDs/STIs: From the American Sexual Health Association
STDs: From the CDC
Get Tested: From the CDC
When and How to Reveal You have an STD—from WebMd
American Sexual Health Association. (2017). Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.ashasexualhealth.org/stdsstis/statistics/
Centers for Disease Control. (2016). Sexually transmitted diseases. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/
Centers for Disease Control. (2016). STD and HIV Screening Recommendations. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/prevention/screeningreccs.htm
Dallas, M. D. (2016). 7 Most Common Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Retrieved from https://www.healthgrades.com/conditions/7-most-common-sexually-transmitted-diseases