According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s estimated that up to 20 million new STIs rear their ugly (often itchy) heads each year and that reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis are the highest they’ve ever been. In fact, the CDC has officially ruled that the United States is experiencing an STI epidemic.
But before you swear off swiping and start Googling “how to be celibate,” take a breath. Armed with the facts—and the right protection—you can stay safe from viral (HIV or herpes), bacterial (chlamydia and gonorrhea), and parasitic (trichomoniasis) infections without sacrificing any summer lovin’.
Below, three OB/GYNs reveal the truth about STI myths that are spreading like, well…
Myth #1: STIs look a certain way
Ariana Grande has a signature look. Kate Middleton has a look. Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen have a look. STIs, on the other hand—not so much. Contrary to popular hope (or, er, belief), many STIs won’t raise a sea of (bumpy) red flags. “Outside of an active herpes outbreak or genital warts, most STIs won’t make your genitals look different,” says Maureen Whelihan, MD, an OB/GYN based in Palm Beach, Florida.
“Most STIs are asymptomatic, and if symptoms do occur, they’re usually vague,” echoes Sarah Gupta, MD, the senior medical liaison for the biotechnology company uBiome. And vague symptoms like razor-burn-looking bumps, slight itching, discolored discharge, cramps, or back pain can often be explained away by more routine issues, like PMS, ingrown hairs, yeast infections, or bacterial vaginosis (BV).
Because STIs don’t always cause alarming symptoms, it’s important to get tested at least once a year, or between partners, whichever comes first, Dr. Gupta says.
Myth #2: You can’t get an STI if you use a condom
“Yes, when used effectively, condoms offer some excellent protection against commons STIs,” says Dr. Whelihan, who recommends latex ones. But, le sigh. Just using a condom isn’t enough—you’ve gotta use it correctly.
Believe it or not, there are quite a few ways condom use can go wrong. If the bugger is too big, it can fall off or ride down (you know, like a pair of boyfriend jeans). If it’s too small, it can fail to cover the exposed areas. (But real talk: Besides too-small running shoes, what sounds worse than a too-tight condom?) Also, because herpes and HPV can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, taking off a condom halfway through or stopping to put one one once you’ve started doing the deed won’t keep you protected from transmission, Dr. Whelihan says. (Although, it’s worth saying, the latter is preferable to no condom use at all—particularly if you’re not trying to get pregnant and you’re not using another form of contraception.)
There’s one more wrinkle to this myth: According to the CDC, even when used the right way, condoms don’t have a 100-percent safety record. And animal-skin condoms in particular are porous enough for STI-causing fluids to seep through.
Myth #3: You’re in the clear if you stick to oral sex
Nope—not even close. “Oral sex is sex, and it does carry risk of transmission with it,” says Dr. Whelihan.
If you’re considering performing oral sex on a person with a penis, Dr. Gupta says you should take a look at said organ and also ask your potential partner if they’ve been tested recently before beginning. If they become the embodiment of the *shrug* emoji when you ask about their status and/or you see any active, visible sores, she recommends not going down that path. But if both those things check out, Dr. Gupta says you should still use a condom. (Keto-lovers, take note: Bacon-flavored condoms are a thing. Just remember not to take a bite…)
If you’re performing oral sex on a person with a vulva, consider using a dental dam. Lingerie company Lorals has just debuted a pair of oh-so-sexy panties (available for pre-order now) made from an ultra-thin latex so that they can double as oral sex protection. Just note that while these have been safety-tested, they’re currently still seeking FDA approval as a dental dam alternative.
Myth #4: Getting tested regularly is optional…
“Left untreated, STIs such as chlamydia and gonorrhea can spread to the uterus and fallopian tubes, causing pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can lead to scarring of the fallopian tubes and even infertility,” says women’s health expert Pari Ghodsi, MD. And according to the CDC, untreated, undiagnosed STIs cause up to 24,000 women to become infertile each year.
Plus, not getting tested doesn’t just put you at risk, it puts your lovers at risk, too.
Myth #5: …and you have to go to the doc to do it
Just as we predicted with our top wellness trends of 2018, the reproductive health space is being disrupted by women-founded startups focused on getting health access into the hands of women. And *prayer hands* that includes STI testing. Thanks to at-home testing kits like Eve Kit and uBiome’s SmartJane, checking for storms brewing below the belt has never been easier.
Myth #6: HIV isn’t an issue anymore
If there’s one convo we’re worse at having than the DTR talk, it’s the one about HIV. “Our failure as a culture to talk about HIV and AIDS may make people think that they’re non-issues now, but that’s false,” says Dr. Ghodsi.
Approximately 36.9 million people in the world are living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), according to UNAIDS, and 1.1 million of those people are in the United States, according to the CDC. In 2015, an estimated 38,5000 new HIV infections were recorded. (The good news: This is down 8 percent from 2010.)
Myth #7: You can catch them from the toilet
We’re not about to try to convince you that public toilets aren’t gross (two words: fecal matter). But the myth that you can catch an STI from a toilet seat is a vaginal health urban legend.
There’s basically zero chance of catching an STI from a toilet seat, says Dr. Gupta. That’s because all those little bacteria that live in our bodies and private parts don’t like living outside of human tissue, which is way warmer, wetter, and cushier (how homey) than a cold hard toilet seat.
Myth #8: Your period protects you from STIs
Period sex is like mayonnaise: You either love it or you hate it. But is there truth to the common belief that you can keep your condoms in the drawer during this time of the month? Nope. “Your period doesn’t protect you from getting pregnant and doesn’t protect you from getting an STI,” says Dr. Whelihan. To that first point, it’s rare that you’ll conceive while menstruating, but it’s not impossible. According to the American Pregnancy Association, sperm can survive inside your body for up to five days, so if you have a shorter cycle and have unprotected sex towards the end of your flow, it could stick around until you ovulate.
To the second point: “You can contract an STI anytime you have unprotected sex, and that includes during your period,” Dr. Whelihan says. Full stop.
Myth #9: Showering or douching after sex will protect you
Whether you love to indulge in a Julia Roberts-inspired bath or enjoy a spa-like shower experience, the truth is, even if you scrub-a-dub until you feel squeaky clean, your post-sex wash-up routine won’t protect you from an STI transmission, says Dr. Gupta. Plus, douching can also throw of the pH balance and flora in your vagina, leading to other unwanted infections, like BV or a yeast infection.
Your best bet, according to Dr. Gupta, is to be be safe during sex, not after it—and let your vagina do its thing and clean itself.
Myth #10: STIs are shameful
We need to stop treating an STI diagnosis as something to be ashamed of, because, honestly, anyone could get one. (Yes, even you). “We don’t think people who contract the flu are dirty or gross, and we shouldn’t think people who get STIs are either,” says Dr. Whelihan. STIs don’t discriminate based on sexual orientation, gender, socioeconomic status, race, religion, or education, she says.
Sexual activity is normal human behavior, just as natural as eating and sleeping. And even if you take all the precautions mentioned above, infections can happen. So remember: While Dr. Whelihan says that most STIs are completely treatable, even women with ones that aren’t are able to lead happy, fulfilling, sex lives.
BTW, the wrong lube *could* cause your condom to break. And if you’re looking for even more sexpert advice? Here are all your burning questions about getting it on, answered.
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