So you think you’ve got a sexually-transmitted disease or infection? Don’t flip out, seriously. Sextually-transmitted infections aren’t anything to celebrate, of course, but chances are you can get things under control with medical guidance and the right course of treatment. It’s all going to be ok!
Leena Nathan, MD, an OBGYN at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles says the first thing you should do is start using condoms with your partners: “Until you can go get tested, use condoms to avoid spreading [any infection]. In fact, unless [you’re] in a monogamous relationship, I always recommend using condoms, regardless of [if you’re taking] birth control [pills].” That goes for non-heterosexual sex, too — female condoms also prevent against STIs.
Your next step is to get tested as soon as you can, no matter what infection you think you might have. Dr. Nathan explains: “Some STDs like gonorrhea and chlamydia, if left untreated, can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, which can lead to infertility and pelvic pain. Prompt treatment is most important.” You can be seen at your regular gynecologist’s office or at a clinic. Planned Parenthood is a great option for testing if you don’t have health insurance — some locations will test you for free or for a very low cost. If you’re in school, a student health center can also test you easily.
Some infections, like herpes, can be diagnosed in-office with an exam, while others, like gonorrhea and hepatitis B, will take a few days to diagnose before blood or urine test results come back. Test results for most STIs usually take about a week, so be sure to practice good self-care during that time, especially if you’re feeling anxious. If you’re upset or ashamed, Dr. Nathan says you shouldn’t feel embarrassed talking to a provider about your suspicion of an STI: “Please be honest about your sexual history. We are here to help, not judge!” STIs are pretty damn common, after all. According to the American Sexual Health association, about half of all people will have an STI in their lifetime.
Depending on what type of disease or infection you have, treatments range from antibiotics (gonorrhea, chlamydia and trichomoniasis), special pubic shampoo (crabs), or a suppressive medication (herpes). Your provider will help guide you to the right treatment for your lifestyle and circumstances. It’s key that you completely comply with whatever medication or treatment is given to you, such as taking the full course of antibiotics. If you don’t, the infection or disease could remain in your body.
Once you know for sure if you have an infection, you should tell past and current partners about your diagnosis (if you didn’t already tell them about your suspicions). Take the talk seriously — do it in person (not by text!), pick the right time, include as many facts as you can, and stay calm. It’s definitely not going to be a the most enjoyable conversation you’ve ever had, but it’s the right thing to do. Another option if you absolutely can’t bring yourself to have the talk is to use a service like Don’t Spread It, which sends sexual partners a message or email letting them know they’ve been exposed to an STI.
While you might be feeling depressed about your diagnosis, you should know that having an STI doesn’t mean you’ve had too much sex, chosen the wrong partners, or are otherwise sexually irresponsible — it can happen to anyone. 1 in 6 people, for example, has herpes, and HPV is so common that almost all sexually-active people get it at some point in their adult lives. Even chlamydia, which people tend to think of as more serious, is infecting more people than you think. Dr. Nathan says, “The CDC recommends that all women under age 25 get screened for chlamydia annually because it is so prevalent and asymptomatic.” For more information and to hear from other people who have or have had STIs, check out The STD Project, a website that aims to break the stigma around these conditions.
Once you’re done with treatment, keep practicing safe sex by using latex condoms and communicating clearly with partners about your STI status. Even if you’re in a monogamous relationship, it’s a good idea to get tested about once a year.