STD rates reach a record high—here’s how to stay safe


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The mere mention of the acronym “STD” is scary enough to have even the lowest-risk individuals running to their doctors for confirmation that all is well down there. 

This is likely the intended consequence of the terrifying billboards I’ve been seeing all over Los Angeles, screaming (quite graphically, too) about syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases. There’s a very good reason they’ve been cropping up as of late—reported STD cases have reached record highs in California. Last year, 300,000 cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and early syphilis were reported, which is a whopping 45 percent increase in the last five years. (Deletes all dating apps while googling “convent life.”)

California’s not the only place in trouble, however; the Center for Disease Prevention and Control says the United States is experiencing what it calls an STI (sexually-transmitted infection) epidemic. Reported cases nationwide of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and early syphilis were the highest ever on record in 2016.

So, how do you stay safe without actually taking a vow of chastity? After all, sex is good for you. Below, experts weigh in on how to go above and beyond the condom.

Keep reading to ensure you’re *actually* being safe in bed.

How to Stay safe from STDS
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Talk to your partner

“All partnered sex involves some degree of risk with regard to sexually transmitted infections,” says Jess O’Reilly, PhD, Astroglide’s resident sexologist.

This is due in part to the fact that the most common methods of prevention are not fail-safe. “Condoms do not prevent against STDs transmitted by skin-to-skin contact,” says Jamin Brahmbhatt, MD, urologist and sexual health expert at Orlando Regional Medical Center. “The areas the condom covers can protect both partners from [covered] things that are on the penis; however, if there are sores or lesions—from things like HPV or genital herpes—on the genitals not covered by the condom, they can be transmitted.”

So, talking to your partner about their STI status before sleeping with them can be a critical part of prevention. “Start with yourself: Tell them about your testing routine,” suggests Dr. O’Reilly. “‘I was tested two months ago, how about you?'” A new app called Social Health Registry hopes to make this conversation easier, but if you’re uncomfortable taking such personal information online, there’s no reason you can’t discuss results face-to-face. And if you really want to play it safe? Don’t take your partner’s word on their status: Make them show you current test results before you hit the sheets. It may seem like a buzzkill, but chlamydia is way worse.

How to stay safe from STDS
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Get tested regularly

On that note, you’ll want to get tested regularly—even if you’re seeing any red-flag-raising symptoms. “The most common symptom of [many] STIs is…no symptom at all,” says Dr. O’Reilly. “So, regular testing is essential.” Dr. Brahmbhatt recommends getting tested once per year if you’re sexually active, though it can’t hurt to get an updated test done after every new partner. This doesn’t have to be an expensive habit, either; Dr. O’Reilly notes that there are free testing sites located across the country.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that most STD panels don’t test for the herpes simplex virus (HSV), even though it’s rampant. “According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in the Americas, 49 percent of men and 39 percent of women are infected with HSV-1. And if you add HSV-2 into the mix, then over 75 percent of the population has likely been exposed to HSV,” says Dr. Brahmbhatt. The CDC does not recommend HSV tests unless there are symptoms and, despite popular misconceptions, most of the time, there aren’t. “Based on research, the CDC has found that diagnosing genital herpes in someone without symptoms has not shown any change in their sexual behavior nor has it stopped the virus from spreading,” Dr. Brahmbatt says to explain the policy.

safe sex tips
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Use condoms…properly

The above herpes info is a good reason to double up with tests and condoms, but believe it or not, there are quite a few ways condom use can go wrong. While this may sound obvious, Dr. Brahmbhatt cautions that fit is critical: If a condom is too large, it can fall off; if it’s too small, it can fail to cover all exposed areas. Logan Levkoff, PhD, an internationally recognized expert on sexuality and relationships and a spokesperson for Vagisil’s new emergency contraceptive Preventeza, ticks off additional mistakes that are commonly made with condoms: completely unrolling the condom before sliding it on, continuing to use a condom that was initially put on inside out, putting on a condom after intercourse has already started, and early removal of a condom before intercourse is completed.

Importantly, Dr. Brahmbhatt also warns that some “natural” condoms on the market (e.g. lambskin) are not safe for protecting against STDs. “Make sure the condom you use is high-quality and listed as approved for STD prevention,” he advises.

Dr. O’Reilly says that female condoms (brand name: FC2) are also an option. One benefit to their usage is that you don’t have to wait until the heat of the moment to insert them—they can be in for up to eight hours before intercourse. “Inserted into the vagina before penetrative sex, FC2 condoms provide latex-free protection to the inner vaginal walls as well as some coverage of the vulva,” says O’Reilly. “The FC2 can also be used to reduce risk of STI transmission during anal sex.”

How to Stay safe from STDS
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Consider oral sex risky, too

According to Dr. O’Reilly, “Oral sex is sex, which carries a risk of STI transmission, so safer sex practices are of paramount importance.” She recommends dental dams for any oral sex performed on a woman. “These sheets of latex are placed against the vulva or anus and slathered in lube [before sexual activity takes place],” she explains.

For performing oral sex on a man, Dr. O’Reilly recommends the use of a traditional condom. And, he says, “If there are active, visible sores, avoid oral sex.”

How to Stay safe from STDS
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Don’t go all the way

Caught up in the heat of the moment and unprepared for full-on sex? Don’t do it. “I think we put a lot of pressure on penetrative sex as being the hallmark of the sex act, instead of recognizing that there are a lot of different ways to be intimate where people can experience physical, sexual, emotional pleasure that might not be penetration,” says Dr. Levkoff. To this end, she thinks hand jobs are underrated—seriously! “We don’t talk about that because we think of that being so juvenile, but the reality is: That’s intimate, connected touch, and it’s a great way to connect with someone.”

Looking for more sex advice? Here’s everything you’ve ever wanted to know but were too shy to ask. Plus, a PSA: clean tampon brand Lola makes condoms now.

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