Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)

Young women's version of this guide

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Anyone who has had sexual contact can get an STI. People of all ages, regions, ethnic backgrounds, and economic levels can get STIs. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there are over20 million new STIs diagnosed every year in the United States and people between 15-24 years of age have half of them. Anyone at any age can get an STI; however, young people who have sex with multiple partners, or have sex with a partner that has many sexual partners, and gay and bisexual men are at a greater risk than others. Additionally, teenagers with female internal organs are more likely to become infected with chlamydia than adults with female internal organs are.


What are the symptoms of an STI?

Many STIs may not cause any symptoms. Symptoms vary for each STI, but they include sores or blisters on or around the genital area or in the mouth, pain or burning during urination, unusual discharge (liquid) from the vagina or penis, itching, swelling, pain in or around the vagina or penis, pain in the pelvic area or abdomen (sometimes with fever and chills), or bleeding other than your menstrual period. If you have any of these symptoms, you could have an STI, but they might also not mean anything serious. Talk to your health care provider right away and get checked out to be safe.

How are STIs spread?

Many STIs are spread through contact with infected body fluids such as blood, vaginal fluids, or semen. They can also be spread through contact with infected skin or mucous membranes, such as sores in the mouth. You may be exposed to infected body fluids and skin through vaginal, anal or oral sex. Anal sex can be riskier as it may cause bleeding which can increase your risk of getting an STI. Sharing needles or syringes for drug use, ear piercing, tattooing, etc. can also expose you to infected fluids.

Most STIs are only spread through direct sexual contact with an infected person. However, pubic lice and scabies can be spread through close personal contact with an infected person, or with infested clothes, sheets, or towels.

How can I prevent getting an STI?

The best way to prevent getting an STI is to not have sex. Some STIs can’t be cured, so you should always practice safer sex, or find ways to be intimate in a romantic relationship without having sex. This means preventing the passing of body fluids such as blood, semen, and vaginal fluids, and avoiding direct oral, anal, or genital contact (by using a barrier method such as a latex condom or a dental dam).

If you do decide to have sex, you should:

  • Use condoms or dental dams 100% of the time. Make sure that you use a new latex condom (or dental dam) correctly every time you have oral, anal, or vaginal sex. If you are allergic to latex, use a polyurethane external condom or internal condom.
  • Use a water-based lubricant with condoms. The lubricant will keep the condom from breaking. Never use lubricants that contain oil or fat, such as petroleum jelly or cooking oil. These products weaken “latex” and can cause the condom to break.
  • Limit the number of people you have sex with. The more partners you have, the greater your risk of being exposed to an STI.
  • Choose partners who have not had sex with many other partners, especially at the same time they are having sex with you.You should ask your partner(s) if they have an STI, have been exposed to one, or have physical symptoms of an STI.
  • Do NOT have sex with anyone that has signs of an STI (sores, rashes, or discharge from the genital area).
  • Make sure you and your partner(s) get checked out for STIs before you have sex. Keep in mind that tests for sexually transmitted infections don’t pick up all STIs.

Other ways to prevent getting an STI include:

  • Don’t inject drugs or have sex with someone who has injected drugs
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs, since they can make you more likely to take chances with sex
  • If you have female internal organs don’t douche, since this can cause different germs in the vagina and increase the risk of pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Get the Hepatitis B and HPV vaccinations

What should I do if I think I have a STI?

If you have any symptoms of an STI, any unexplained problems, or you think you may have been exposed to an STI (even if you don’t have symptoms), see your health care provider right away and get tested. You can’t correctly test or diagnose yourself with an STI. Only your health care provider can do that. Most STIs can be treated. The earlier you get treatment, the better. More serious problems can develop if you wait. Whenever possible, treatment is given in a single dose, but sometimes you need to take medication over a period of time.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that if you are a sexually active person with female internal organs and are younger than 25, or have risk factors including new or multiple sex partners, you should ask to have a yearly chlamydia and gonorrhea test. If you are pregnant and a teen, make sure that your health care provider tests you for syphilis, HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea and hepatitis B as soon as possible.

What should I do if I have an STI?

  • You should tell all sex partner(s) who may have been exposed. Encourage them to get tested. If you feel that you can’t tell your partner(s), talk to your health care provider. They will will help you find another way to let your partner(s) know they have been exposed.
  • If there is a treatment, you and your current sexual partner(s) need to get treated at the same time to prevent passing the infection back and forth.
  • Take all of your medicine, even if you feel better right away.
  • Schedule a follow-up exam with your health care provider after you’ve finished treatment.
  • Don’t have sex again until your health care provider says you’re cured.
  • Consider meeting with a counselor if you’re concerned or upset about having an STI. Your health care provider can help you find a counselor.

Are STI tests always accurate?

No test for any STI is 100% accurate. Some STIs don’t show up right away and some STIs don’t have tests, so they may be missed. It could take an infection anywhere from a couple of days to a few years to show up in testing. If you think you have an STI, get tested. If you test negative, you may have to go back to your provider to get re-tested. Even if you test negative, keep practicing safer sex.

What about confidentiality?

What you tell your health care provider about your sexual behavior and exposure to STIs is confidential. For STIs, your health care provider can’t talk about anything you tell them, unless they seriously believe that you are a danger to yourself or others, or that you aren’t able to make decisions on your own. Unfortunately parents/caregivers do find out sometimes because the insurance company may send an EOB (Explanation of Benefits) statement to a parent/caregiver who is the subscriber (of the health insurance). So discuss this issue with your health care provider. In any case, you may find it very helpful to talk to your parents/caregiver about your health and your worries. This can be a scary time for you and it’s always good to have an adult to talk to.

If I’ve had an STI, can I get it again?

For most STI’s you can get them multiple times.if you have sex – especially if you have sex without a condom/dental dam. You can also have more than one STI at a time.

Also, some STIs aren’t curable, so you can still have the STI even if you’ve received treatment. These include Herpes and HIV/AIDS.

What serious problems can STIs cause?

If STIs aren’t treated, they can have serious side effects if untreated, such as:

  • Pain
  • Worsening infection
  • Infertility (unable to have children)
  • Increased risk for some types of cancer
  • Brain damage
  • Death

The only way to prevent getting an STI is by not having sex. The next best ways to prevent an STI are by using a condom/dental dam every time you have sex and choosing partners who are at lower risk for an STI. Seeing a health care provider regularly is important to learn more about how to prevent STIs and to be checked to see if you’ve gotten an STI. It’s important to see a health care provider if you think you might have an STI.

If you’re concerned about STIs, here’s a tip on how to bring it up with your health care provider: “I had unprotected sex with someone. Can I get tested?”