STIs (sexually transmitted infections) along with the seasonal flu are among the most contagious diseases and they present a major challenge to public health even as we get better at treating and vaccinating against them. Some of the easiest to treat STIs constitute the largest percentage of the global burden but why? Experts seem to agree on the contributing factors: stigma and shame, misinformation, insufficient or unreliable protection, inconsistent testing.  

This Condoms Awareness Week we at FindMeCure want to get involved in the campaign for spreading accurate and reliable information so that together we can lift the global burden. It’s not simply a matter of personal responsibility but also an opportunity for dialogue about sexual health and prevention practices devoid of shame. On the other side of stigma, you’ll find a world of good advice and acceptance. 

“Yes, the Cosmo girl CAN get AIDS”

Misinformation is among the scariest risk factors because it’s so hard to fight it in the age of fake news when credible sources are pushed to the side in favour of quick fixes and old wives tales. Interestingly, this was the case some 30 years ago when Cosmopolitan magazine made the dangerous mistake of stating that regular heterosexual sex (in the missionary position) presented a negligible risk of AIDS. “Reassuring News About AIDS (A Doctor Tells Why You May Not Be At Risk)” by psychiatrist Robert Gould made many ACT UP activists livid because it told women they were among the least vulnerable demographics. Instead of removing the stigma around sex, it exposed the readers (mostly heterosexual women) to the risk of contracting the virus by giving them a false sense of security. 

The truth of the matter is, STIs, including HIV, can be transmitted through all sexual interactions where the exchange of fluids can occur. Heterosexual women are no less at risk and sexual practices like oral sex still present a danger when unprotected. This isn’t fearmongering, these are the facts. Nothing except condoms, vaccines and regular testing protects against STIs. No herbs or magical sexual positions that scare HIV away. 

Let’s dispell the common myths

Another myth we want to bust is that testing for STIs is painful, shameful or too inconvenient. Depending on where you live, you might be able to order an at-home kit online and do all of the sample collecting yourself by following the instructions. In many countries, there are public health programs that offer quick, free testing for a number of STIs. Healthcare professionals don’t judge you when you ask to be tested, on the contrary – they recognise this as a responsible choice on your part. 

As we already stated above, only barrier methods and vaccines prevent STIs. Hormonal contraception, though highly effective against unwanted pregnancy, can’t protect you against STIs. Regular testing is a must in any case and knowing your partner’s sexual history is another good practice. That being said, we’d like to dispell the misconception that only people with many sexual partners can contract STIs – bacteria and viruses don’t really care if this is your first time having sex or your 1000th. To lean on the side of caution you might want to limit the number of partners you have and get vaccinated against HPV and hepatitis B before you even begin your sexual life. However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because you only had a few sexual partners you’re not at risk – always get tested. 

Also a myth: STIs always have symptoms. This one is for sure not true. Unless you got recently tested and you’ve had no sexual partners since you can’t be sure you don’t have an STI. Many of them are asymptomatic, meaning that you can’t know just by the way you feel or look if something is wrong or not. Atypical discharge, ulcers or warts can be a sign of underlying illness but if none of those is present it doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods. 

Another myth you absolutely should not believe: STIs will go away on their own. They won’t. In fact, the longer you go undiagnosed and thus – untreated, the more damage an STI can do even if no symptoms are present. STIs are if not curable (HIV, HPV), treatable and early access to treatment is best.

Good prevention practises

We’ll say it again – no matter your sexual history, regular testing is a must. To significantly lower your risk of contracting an STI, however, there are some safe sex practices you need to know and discuss with your partners. 

The first one is fundamental and it comes even before the use of condoms – it’s talking about sex without shame and without judgement. According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, the best approach to preventing STIs in our communities incorporates Stopping Stigma and Communicating alongside Cooperating and Condomizing. People who can’t directly address issues concerning sex and their sexual health are more at risk of contracting STIs and so are those prone to spur-of-the-moment decisions. Sex should be talked about beforehand and if your partner is not willing to address your sex-related concerns or talk discuss safe sex practices this should be a major red flag. 

Next on the list is consistent and correct condom use. What does this mean? Consistent is self-explanatory: always use condoms unless both you and your partner(s) know your STI status and you’re protected against unwanted pregnancy. Condoms are a must whatever your preferred sexual practices – like we said, whenever fluids can be exchanged, STIs can be transmitted. 

What does correct use mean? Condoms are easy to use, however, some myths persist. It is NOT true that using two condoms simultaneously (either one over the other or male and female condoms together) provides better protection – the opposite is true. Using two condoms at the same time puts you at more risk because the friction between the two materials can lead to breakages. Speaking of materials, you should know that condoms made of sheep intestine do NOT provide protection. Other factors that you should keep in mind include:

  • Don’t use expired condoms
  • Don’t reuse condoms
  • Don’t pair latex condoms with oil-based lubricants – they can weaken the condom
  • If you’re allergic to latex, you can use synthetic rubber condoms made of polyurethane, nitrile, polyisoprene
  • Dental dams should be used while performing oral sex – they too can be made of latex or synthetic rubber

You can read more details about correct condom use on the HealthLinkBC page or ask your healthcare provider – they won’t judge you for wanting to make responsible decisions about your health. 

Another way to protect yourself from STIs is to get vaccinated. Currently, there are vaccines against some types of HPV as well as against hepatitis B. This is good news because some STIs like HPV are transmitted through skin-to-skin touch and a condom is not as effective as it is in cases of fluid exchange transmission. You can ask your GP about them and together you can discuss if they’re the right option for you. The HPV vaccine is recommended for adolescents who haven’t yet started their sex lives but if you are a sexually active adult you can still get vaccinated – just keep in mind the vaccine is meant for prevention, not treatment. 

Abstinence-only, although outdated and generally ineffective, can work in certain cases – if you are a healthy individual in a monogamous relationship with another healthy individual, your risk of contracting an STI is significantly lower. However, keep in mind that some infections can be transmitted through tattoo or acupuncture needles and even at your manicure appointment – make sure gloves and sterile needles are used and all safety practices are upheld. 

Treatments in development

If you want to access investigational new treatments you might want to consider joining a clinical trial. Our search comes up with 74 clinical trials for the term ‘STD’ with all sorts of different purposes: treatment, prevention, observation, etc. You can contribute to the medical knowledge about your condition by volunteering your time to clinical research or access the best prevention practices.

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