Sexually transmitted infections: What you should know

An estimated one in five people has an STI, according to latest US data

Happy affectionate young couple sitting on rooftop in the evening

Dating apps are not your friends.

That’s according to Annalisa Cunningham, CNP, who’s witnessed an increase in the number of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) over the past year.

“We have seen an increase in people having partners that they just don’t know well, because they’re not out in a social environment. Instead, they’re communicating electronically,” she said.

Cunningham works at the Sanford Health Midtown Family Planning Clinic in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where she helps to treat and diagnose STIs. Her daily work also involves raising awareness about sex education and STIs, which she says are more common than most people realize.

An estimated one in every five people in the United States has a sexually transmitted infection, according to a new analysis of the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With STIs so common, it’s important to know what they are and how they spread.

Not everyone experiences STI symptoms

An STI is an infection passed by one person to another through sexual contact. The symptoms of infection are different for everyone.

Some people have no symptoms. If there are symptoms present, they’re often mild.

“A lot of people really don’t know that they have an STI at all,” Cunningham said.

Men may experience urinary discomfort, tingling or burning. Unusual discharge can also indicate an infection.

Women can experience anything from minor symptoms like vaginal discharge to something more severe like bleeding or pain after intercourse.

“Sometimes bleeding with intercourse or after is a really good indication that you might have chlamydia. If there’s bleeding, you should come get checked because that might be your only sign.”

From mild infection to serious disease

When caught early, STIs are relatively easy to treat. Without treatment, an STI can develop into something more serious: a sexually transmitted disease (STD).

“Chlamydia is a very common STI, but over time, if it’s not treated, it can lead to a disease,” Cunningham said. “That could be a scarring of the fallopian tubes, which would lead to infertility.”

The health concerns are serious, especially for women. Along with infertility, various diseases can cause organ damage, cancer or even death.

The consequences are even greater for pregnant women and babies. Untreated syphilis in pregnant women results in infant death up to 40% of the time.

Available treatment options

The good news: Treatment is available for all STIs. The most common — syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea — can be cured with antibiotics.

There are no cures for herpes or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), but there are treatments available to lessen the symptoms and your chance of spreading them.

Get screened annually

Those who are sexually active should get screened annually for STIs, Cunningham said. It’s also important to get screened if you change partners or don’t trust your partner.

A screening may involve a pelvic exam, blood test, urine test or fluid sample.

“We routinely do chlamydia and gonorrhea screening off of a urine sample,” Cunningham said. “It’s not uncomfortable or painful for both men and women.

The screening process is fast.

“It’s very simple, and we get results basically overnight or within a day or two,” she said.

STIs are preventable

The best time to talk to your partner about getting screened is before you start having sex. “If you don’t come in contact with someone else’s infection, you won’t catch it,” Cunningham said.

She and other experts recommend using condoms, talking to your partner and getting regular screenings.

“Nothing is a hundred percent, but you can mitigate it and really decrease your risk of getting something.”

Other ways to reduce your risk:

  • Get vaccinated. The HPV vaccine is recommended for those ages 11 to 26.
  • Abstain from sex. It’s the most reliable way to avoid an STI.
  • Know your partners. Open and honest conversations can help to prevent the spread of infection.

Resources available

The Sanford Health Midtown Family Planning Clinic provides free or discounted services based on family size and income.

The clinic, sponsored by Sanford Health and the South Dakota Department of Health, offers a variety of services, including: exams and screenings, STI testing, treatment, birth control and pregnancy testing. All visits to the clinic are confidential.

Learn more

Posted In Family Medicine, Healthy Living, Internal Medicine

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