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Keeping it real: your guide to STIs

We don’t want to take the steam out of your Valentine’s Day plans, but the so-called most romantic day of the year is the perfect occasion to share some not-so-sexy facts: 

  • The U.S. is home to more than 25 million sexually transmitted infections (STIs) each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And rates are on the rise.
  • About half of all STIs occur in people 15-24 years old.
  • You don’t have to have intercourse to get an STI.  
  • It’s not uncommon to pass an STI to a sexual partner without knowing you have one.
  • STIs can lead to serious health problems if not treated.

This year, think beyond bouquets, candle-lit dinners and gushy Hallmark cards. Valentine’s Day is also a great time to better understand the basics about STIs.


What is a sexually transmitted infection?

Simply put, a sexually transmitted infection is a serious condition you can get during any kind of sexual activity, including vaginal, oral and anal sex. Occasionally, STIs can also be passed along through other types of intimate contact. 

STIs can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites, depending on the type of infection.


What’s the difference between an STI and an STD? 

STD stands for sexually transmitted disease while STI stands for sexually transmitted infections. Technically, STIs and STDs are different, but there’s really only one distinction between the two. An STI is only considered an STD when it causes symptoms. 

Over the years,  STI has become the more-preferred acronym among health care experts, including the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA). Most agree that terms like STD – and that old-time favorite “venereal disease” – carry a lot of unnecessarily negative connotations. 


What are common symptoms of STIs?

There are a variety of STIs with varying symptoms. Signs of an STI may appear within a few days of exposure, or you may have no signs or symptoms at all, especially in the early stages of infection. In some cases, it may take years before you have any noticeable problems. (That’s why testing is so important.)

STI symptoms might include:

  • Painful or burning urination.
  • Sores or bumps on the genitals or in the oral or rectal area.
  • Discharge from the penis.
  • Unusual or odorous vaginal discharge.
  • Unusual vaginal bleeding.
  • Pain during sex.
  • Sore, swollen lymph nodes, particularly in the groin but sometimes more widespread.
  • Lower abdominal pain.
  • Fever.
  • Rash over the trunk, hands, or feet.


What are the most common STIs?

There are more than 20 types of STIs. Most can affect both men and women, although the problems they can cause can be more severe for women.

The five most common STIs are:

  • Chlamydia: This bacterial infection of the genital tract is the most reported STI in the U.S. You can get chlamydia during oral, vaginal or anal sex with someone who is infected. It can affect anyone but is most common in young women. Chlamydia is easily cured, but when left untreated, it can lead to serious complications and cause permanent damage to the reproductive organs.
  • Gonorrhea: The bacteria that cause gonorrhea can infect the genital tract, mouth or anus. Most common in young people, gonorrhea can be contracted during vaginal, oral or anal sex with an infected partner. It can also be passed to a baby during childbirth.  
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV): This group of more than 200 viruses can cause warts on different parts of the body. Around 40 are spread through direct sexual contact with someone who has the virus, but can also spread through other intimate, skin-to-skin contact. Some of these viruses can cause cancer.
  • Genital herpes: This viral STI can cause sores on the genitals or rectal areas, buttocks and thighs, although the virus can be spread even when you don’t have sores. You can get genital herpes from having vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who is infected. It can also be passed on to babies during childbirth.
  • Syphilis: This bacterial infection often begins with a painless sore that can progress to include fever, rash, swollen glands, sore throat and headaches. Syphilis develops in stages and is most treatable when detected early. If left untreated, syphilis can cause damage to the heart, brain or other organs. It can also be passed to a baby during pregnancy and childbirth and sometimes through breastfeeding.


How can I reduce my chances of getting an STI? 

Protecting yourself from STIs is key to your overall health. If you’re sexually active, here are the most important ways you can lower your risk of infection: 

  • Use latex condoms every time you have any kind of sex.
  • Have a conversation BEFORE you have sex. Talk openly and honestly with your partner about STIs so you can both make informed choices about your sexual health. The CDC offers some great conversation tips.
  • Know your sexual partners. The more partners you or your partners have, the higher your risk of getting an STI.
  • Get vaccinated. Vaccines can help protect against certain STIs. The HPV vaccine is routinely recommended for kids 11 or 12 years. If you weren’t vaccinated at that age, vaccination is also recommended for everyone through the age of 26. Learn more about the CDC’s HPV vaccine guidelines.
  • Avoid alcohol or drugs before having sex. People often forego precautions when under the influence.
  • Get tested for STIs regularly. Talk with your health care clinician about which tests you might need.


How are STIs diagnosed and treated?

Many times, STI symptoms are mild or unnoticeable. Whether you have symptoms or not, getting tested is the best way to protect your health and your partner’s well-being. 

Tests can vary depending on which STIs your health care clinician may be checking for. 

STI testing could include a:

  • Urine test.
  • Blood test.
  • Fluid sample from a skin sore.
  • Genital, rectum, throat or cheek swab.

Treatment varies based on the cause of your infection:

  • Antibiotics can easily cure many STIs that are caused by bacteria, including syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia.
  • Some STI infections caused by viruses (such as HPV and genital herpes) are not curable, but treatment can lessen symptoms. Antiviral medications can prevent or shorten outbreaks and greatly reduce the chance of spreading the infection to others.


Indigo offers STI testing – and peace of mind

Don’t let an STI come between you and a safe, healthy and satisfying sex life. If you are sexually active, routine testing is recommended.

At Indigo Urgent Care, we can test for and treat (when possible) common STIs – all in a safe, friendly and stigma-free environment. Our health care clinicians offer confidential screenings and on-site lab services at all our convenient neighborhood locations

If you think you’ve been exposed to an STI and prefer to talk with someone from the comfort, convenience and privacy of home, Indigo Virtual Care has you covered. Our online clinicians are available to talk about your exposure and treatment options and will recommend in-person an assessment and testing, if needed. They can also prescribe or refill birth control and address any other sexual issues or concerns you might have.

Virtually or in-person, we’re here every day from 8 am to 8 pm, including weekends and holidays. 

Don’t give your Valentine anything but love. Learn more about STI testing

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