When it comes to combating sexually transmitted infections, staying informed and proactive is the first (and best) line of defense.
Sexually transmitted diseases and infections are a serious issue in the United States. Every year, the CDC estimates there are 19.7 million new STIs contracted; men and women aged 15-24 accounted for over 50 percent of these cases, putting teenagers and young adults at particular risk. Also, it’s estimated that more than half of all people will have an STI in their lifetime. More than anything else, knowing the risks, symptoms, and treatments is key to minimizing these numbers.
In 2008, men and women in the United States had an estimated 110 million sexually transmitted infections; the most prevalent infection, the human papilloma virus (HPV), makes up approximately 71 percent of that total.
Although there is no treatment for the virus itself, in the vast majority of cases the immune system successfully clears HPV within two years. In fact, most infected people never know they have the virus, as the vast majority never show symptoms (though a small number develop genital warts).
HPV is such a common STI (with 79 million Americans currently infected) that most sexually active men and women will be infected in their lifetimes, according to the CDC, making prevention all the more crucial. That’s because cervical cancer caused by the virus is one of the greatest dangers HPV poses, and thus the CDC recommends that all children 11 years and older get vaccinated.
The second most common sexually transmitted infection is herpes, which can be contracted in two forms: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-2 accounts for 50 million genital herpes infections in the United States — approximately one out of six people between the ages of 14 and 49. The primary difference between the two viral types is the location on the body in which they remain latent, according to Herpes. HSV-1 lies dormant in nerve cells near the ear before migrating to the lower lip or face. HSV-2, meanwhile, lives in the nerves at the base of the spine, though it manifests in the genital area. Although herpes is a lifelong infection, there are treatments to address its symptoms.
Other common STIs include chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis, all of which are increasing in prevalence. Chlamydia can cause serious damage to a woman’s reproductive system if left untreated, but rarely presents any symptoms, according to the CDC. Much like with gonorrhea, the symptoms that do appear include genital discharge and a burning sensation while urinating.
Syphilis can cause long-term complications, and presents in three stages: the primary stage with a single sore; the secondary stage, with a skin rash on multiple parts of the body; and finally the latent or late stage, which begins after all other signs from the early stages disappear, and can lay dormant for 10-30 years after infection. Signs of this stage include numbness, paralysis, blindness, and dementia, and can eventually result in death from organ damage. The good news is that all three can be cured with medication, though they are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotic treatments.
HIV, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus, is a viral infection that can lead to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). The virus attacks T cells, which are specific to the immune system and help the body fight infection. If enough of the cells are destroyed, the body can lose its ability to fend off infections entirely, with potentially lethal consequences. While no cure exists, early diagnosis and modern medical treatments have allowed those infected to lead normal lives, as powerful preventative measures have been developed.
One such measure is called PrEP (Pre Exposure Prophylaxis), for those with a particularly high risk for HIV, and involves taking HIV drugs before being exposed to the virus to reduce the risk of infection (by up to 90 percent). PEP (Post Exposure Prophylaxis) describes using the drugs within 72 hours of potential exposure, though the sooner the better. Although they can help prevent an HIV infection, PrEP and PEP treatments do not prevent any other illnesses, nor are they 100 percent effective.
Abstinence is the only completely effective way to fully protect yourself from STIs and HIV/AIDS, though there are many other preventative options for the sexually active. Vaccinations are a safe and recommended way to protect against Hepatitis B and HPV. Correctly and consistently using latex male condoms is highly effective in preventing transmission, and making behavioral changes can further reduce your risk. By limiting your number of sexual partners and maintaining mutual monogamy, for example, you can significantly decrease the chance of infection.
Regularly getting tested with the same frequency you visit the dentist will ensure you and your partner(s) are healthy and safe, and that’s essential in the ongoing battle against STIs. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and you should always seek professional medical advice before you become sexually active or alter your sexual behavior.
And whether you’re seeking treatments or a health screen, SingleCare can help you find the best provider at the most affordable cost. Members pay only for the services they use, at the same negotiated prices insurance companies pay. The lesson here: stay aware, get tested, and stay safe.
(Main image credit: Digital Vision/Thinkstock)