How to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
If you have a sexual encounter – whether that’s vaginal (penis-in-vagina) sex, oral sex or anal sex – you could be at risk for a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Some STIs (like herpes and HPV) can even be spread from skin-to-skin contact, meaning you don’t have to “go all the way” to get them.
STIs are also called sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
While some STIs cause symptoms, others can live in your body without any signs. They can affect anyone, regardless of age, sex, race or sexual orientation. In 2018, there were 26 million new STIs in the United States. STIs are especially common in young people ages 15 to 24, accounting for nearly half of all new cases each year.
Keep reading to learn about the different STIs, how to prevent infection, symptoms to watch for and when to get tested. Need more info? Ask an Expert.
What are STIs?
Some STIs are curable; others are not. They can be caused by bacteria, parasites or viruses.
Bacterial and parasitic STIs can be cured with antibiotics. However, if left untreated, they can cause irreversible damage. These include:
- Gonorrhea (also known as “the clap”)
- Pubic lice (also known as “crabs”)
- Trichomoniasis (also known as “trich” or “trick”)
These infections can show symptoms, though many people may not experience any symptoms at all.
Viral STIs cannot be cured with medication; however, these STIs are manageable through medication and treatment by a doctor. These include:
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Hepatitis B
Signs of STIs
Some STIs cause no symptoms; others can cause:
- Rashes, sores or bumps in the genital area (on or around the vagina or penis)
- Pelvic, back or abdominal pain
- Unusual discharge from the vagina or penis
- Burning or frequent urination
Left untreated, even curable STIs can cause permanent damage to the body like:
- Ectopic pregnancy
- Cancer of the cervix, anus, throat or penis
- Liver damage
- Brain damage
Having an STI also makes you more susceptible to contracting HIV.
How to prevent STIs
The only 100% effective way to prevent STIs is to not have vaginal, anal or oral sex. If you choose to be sexually active, you should stay as safe as possible by using protection. Learn more about how to protect yourself from STIs.
You can also lower your risk of STIs by:
- Having fewer sexual partners
- Getting tested with your partner before becoming sexually active
- Using condoms or dental dams
- Getting the HPV vaccine, which can guard against certain strains of the virus, some of which can cause cancer and genital warts
- Getting the Hepatitis B vaccine
When to get tested for STIs
The only way to know if you have an STI is to get tested. Many people with STIs have mild or no symptoms. There’s no way to tell if someone has an STI just by looking at them. While some STIs can cause visible symptoms, others have no signs at all. Before you engage in sexual activity with someone, you should both get tested for STIs.
Your doctor’s office, local health department or a family planning clinic should offer STI testing. Visit the CDC’s website to find a free testing location near you.
Will your parents find out you got an STI test?
While all states give minors some control over keeping their sexual health confidential, the extent varies from state to state. To know your state’s laws, visit Sexetc.org or contact your doctor’s office or local health .
Need more info? Ask an Expert.
For more information about staying in charge of your health and future, visit:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Get Tested
CDC: Sexually Transmitted Diseases