Myths and Facts About STIs You Should Know

By Sijé Vargas

reviewed by amadou barrow

Engaging in safe sex can help you and your partner(s) enjoy your sexual life more, and it also prevents you from contracting any sexually transmitted infections (STIs). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), STIs are spread predominantly through sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Some STIs can also be spread through non-sexual means such as via blood or blood products.

In 2016, WHO estimated 376 million new infections worldwide, which means more than 1 million new infections per day, with one of four STIs: chlamydia (127 million), gonorrhea (87 million), syphilis (6.3 million), and trichomoniasis (156 million). 

From the moment you become sexually active, it is recommended to have regular tests to detect any sexually transmitted infections. STIs are common and in most cases, there are multiple ways to treat them.There are five major STIs and they are listed here, as well as some of their myths and facts.

 

Myths and facts

Here are some of the most common STIs along with some of the myths and facts behind them.

 

Chlamydia

A common sexually transmitted disease (STD), an infection caused by bacteria. Chlamydia is also the most frequently reported bacterial sexually transmitted infection in the United States. However, a large number of cases aren’t reported because most people who have it don’t have symptoms and do not seek testing for it. This is why it’s important for you to know, in case you contract it, how to treat it. Chlamydia is transmitted by the penis, vagina, mouth, or anus of an infected partner.

Myths and facts

  • If the person doesn’t ejaculate, you won’t get infected. = MYTH 
  • Chlamydia is transmitted through sexual contact with the penis, vagina, mouth, or anus of an infected partner. = FACT
  • During childbirth, if the person is infected, chlamydia can’t be transmitted to the baby. = MYTH 
  • You can get chlamydia through casual contact, such as sharing food or drinks, kissing or hugging, holding hands, coughing, sneezing, or sitting on a toilet. = MYTH 
  • Chlamydia is cured with antibiotics. = FACT
  • If you have chlamydia, you shouldn’t have sex with anyone for 7 days from the time you start your treatment. = FACT
    • FYI: The treatment won’t work if you’re exposed in those 7 days.

 

Gonorrhea

A common sexually transmitted infection that especially affects 15-24 year olds, although all age groups and genders may be infected. In some cases, gonorrhea doesn’t cause symptoms. But when it does, it can be painful. The main symptoms for people with a penis are the following: pain when urinating, a pus-like discharge from the tip of the penis, and pain or swelling in one testicle.

For persons with a uterus, symptoms include (but aren’t limited to): increased vaginal discharge, painful urination, vaginal bleeding between periods (such as after vaginal intercourse), and abdominal or pelvic pain. Rectal infections may either cause no symptoms or cause symptoms that may include discharge, anal itching, soreness, bleeding, and painful bowel movements.

Gonorrhea can be cured with the right treatment. It’s important that you take all the medication your doctor prescribes to cure the infection. Medication for gonorrhea should not be shared with anyone. Although medication will stop the infection, it won’t undo any permanent damage caused by the disease. It’s becoming harder to treat some types of gonorrhea, as drug-resistant strains of gonorrhea are increasing. If your symptoms continue for more than a few days after receiving treatment, you should return to a health care provider to be checked again.

Myths and facts

  • Gonorrhea can also infect the cervix. = FACT
  • Gonorrhea is transmitted even when the penis doesn’t fully penetrate the vagina or anus. = FACT
  • If you don’t have any symptoms, you can’t infect others. = MYTH 
  • You can also get it from touching your eyes if you have infected secretions on your hand. = FACT
  • Mothers can transmit the disease to babies during birth. = FACT

 

Syphilis

A chronic infectious disease usually transmitted by sexual contact, by blood transfusion, or from mother to baby in the utero. Additionally, there’s evidence that syphilis is transmitted through non-sexual contact in communities with poor hygiene conditions. 

Acquired syphilis is divided into early and late syphilis. Early syphilis can be divided into primary, secondary, and latent. The primary stage begins with the appearance of sores at the original site of infection. The secondary stage may include symptoms such as a rash, swollen lymph nodes, and fever. Signs and symptoms of primary and secondary syphilis may be mild and go unnoticed.

During the latent phase, there are no signs or symptoms. Late syphilis is associated with serious medical problems and is usually diagnosed by a doctor. It can affect certain areas of the body such as the heart, brain, and other vital organs.

If syphilis isn’t detected in time, it can cause neurosyphilis and even ocular syphilis, which can affect your brain and vision.

Myths and facts

  • Syphilis sores usually appear on or around the genitals, around the anus or rectum, or in or around the mouth. = FACT
  • Syphilis testing is done by obtaining a blood sample or by swabbing any genital sores you may have. = FACT
  • When the sores appear, syphilis is very contagious, but people may not even know they have it because they don’t notice the sores. = FACT
  • In the beginning primary stage syphilis sores can be painful. = MYTH
    • FYI: In the beginning, there are no noticeable symptoms. Sores are usually (but not always) firm, round, and painless. 
  • Neurosyphilis can’t cause paralysis, dementia, or difficulty coordinating muscle movements. = MYTH
  • Late syphilis may show symptoms 10 or even 30 years after you’ve been infected with syphilis. = FACT

 

Herpes

They are spread by two types of virus, which are common and can cause sores on your genitals and/or mouth. Herpes infections are mostly asymptomatic or unrecognized, but they can be uncomfortable and painful. There are two types of herpes — genital, or HSV-2, and oral, HSV-1. Transmission can occur during vaginal, oral, or anal sex, and kissing. Sores do disappear from your skin, but they can come back and most oral and genital herpes infections are asymptomatic.

Myths and facts

  • There’s no cure for herpes, but there are medications that can reduce the symptoms and even decrease the chances of spreading herpes to others. = FACT
  • You can’t get both HSV-1 and HSV-2 at the same time. = MYTH
  • Herpes can be spread quickly; skin-to-skin genital contact is enough. = FACT
  • Sometimes herpes can be transmitted in a way that’s not sexual. = FACT
  • People with herpes who don’t have symptoms aren’t contagious. = MYTH
    • FYI: Remember that many STIs are silent and still contagious. Herpes isn’t an exception.

 

Human papillomavirus (HPV)

In most cases, it’s asymptomatic and disappears without treatment. However, some types can cause genital warts or cancer. Genital warts are uncomfortable but don’t cause cancer or other serious health problems. According to WHO, there are more than 100 types of HPV, of which at least 14 are cancer-causing (also known as high-risk type).

Because it’s a silent disease in most cases, it’s very important that you get tested frequently so you can act early if you’re infected and not infect others.

Myths and facts

  • Almost everyone who is sexually active gets HPV at some point in their lives. = FACT
  • Most HPV infections are harmless and go away on their own. = FACT
  • There are vaccines that can prevent you from getting a certain type of HPV. = FACT
  • High-risk cases of HPV can’t be easily treated before they turn into cancer. = MYTH
    • FYI: On the contrary, they are treated easily and that’s why it’s important to have regular HPV or Pap tests.
  • HPV can also cause cancer in your vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth, and throat. = FACT
  • After the virus disappears from your body, it can be transmitted to other people. = MYTH
    • FYI: Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

 

Hepatitis B

An infection that damages the liver and can cause hepatic (liver) disease. If it’s not detected in time, it can develop into chronic hepatitis B for which there is no cure. The virus is most commonly transmitted from mother to child during birth and delivery, as well as through contact with blood or other body fluids, including sex with an infected partner, injection-drug use that involves sharing needles, syringes, or drug-preparation equipment and needle sticks, or exposure to sharp instruments.Vaccination during childhood could build lasting immunity to hepatitis B.

There are five main types of hepatitis, A, B, C, D, and E, and while the sources of infection vary (through contaminated food and water or infected body fluids, for example), prevention and treatment are important to halt outbreaks or epidemic spreads. 

According to WHO, hepatitis B prevalence is highest in the WHO Western Pacific Region and the WHO African Region, where 6.2% and 6.1% of the adult population is infected respectively. In the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region, the WHO South-East Asia Region, and the WHO European Region, an estimated 3.3%, 2.0%, and 1.6% of the general population is infected, respectively. 

There’s no specific treatment for acute hepatitis B. Therefore, care is aimed at maintaining comfort and adequate nutritional balance, including replacement of fluids lost from vomiting and diarrhea. Chronic hepatitis B infection can be treated with medicines, including oral antiviral agents. Treatment can slow the progression of cirrhosis, reduce the incidence of liver cancer, and improve long-term survival.

Myths and facts

  • You can protect yourself by getting the hepatitis B vaccine and using a condom. = FACT
  • The treatment does not cure hepatitis B infection, but only suppresses the replication of the virus. Therefore, most people who start hepatitis B treatment must continue it for life. = FACT
  • Hepatitis B is transmitted by saliva. = MYTH
  • You can get infected by sharing toothbrushes and razors. = FACT
    • FYI: If blood is left on them, you can get infected.
  • Hepatitis B could be transmitted by a needlestick injury. = FACT
  • During pregnancy, if the person is infected, it cannot be transmitted to the baby. = MYTH
    • FYI: During childbirth, the baby can get infected.

 

HIV

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks and destroys your cells and immune system. Since HIV impairs the immune system, it makes it easier for you to get very sick and even die from infections that your body could normally fight back. At the end of 2019, there were an estimated 38.0 million people living with HIV.

The most advanced stage of HIV infection is acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which can take many years to develop if not treated, depending on the individual. AIDS is linked to the development of certain cancers, infections, or other severe long-term clinical manifestations.

HIV is carried in semen, vaginal secretions, anal mucus, blood (including menstrual blood), and breast milk. The virus enters the body through cuts or sores on the skin and through mucous membranes, such as the inside of the vagina, rectum, and opening of the penis.

Eventually, HIV destroys an important type of immune system cell known as CD4 cells or T-cells, which protect us from infections. When you don’t have enough CD4 cells, your body can’t fight infections as it normally would.

A person has AIDS when he, she, or they get dangerous infections or have an extremely low number of CD4 cells. AIDS is the most severe stage of HIV infection and eventually leads to death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 should get tested for HIV at least once a year. 

There’s no cure for an HIV infection. However, effective prevention interventions are available: preventing mother-to-child-transmission, male and female condom use, harm-reduction interventions, pre-exposure prophylaxis, post-exposure prophylaxis, voluntary medical male circumcision (VMMC), and antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), which can control the virus and help prevent onward transmission to other people.

Myths and Facts

  • Nearly 40% of new HIV infections are transmitted by people who don’t know they have the virus. = FACT
  • People with HIV who are taking antiretroviral therapy and are virally suppressed don’t transmit HIV to their sexual partners. = FACT
  • Since 2016, WHO recommended that all people living with HIV be provided with lifelong antiretroviral drugs. This is regardless of clinical status or CD4 cell count. = FACT
  • There isn’t enough HIV in saliva, urine, or tears for it to be infectious. = FACT
  • HIV survives in the air. = MYTH
  • You can’t get HIV by kissing, hugging, sharing food, through insect bites, sweat, sneezes, and coughs. = FACT
  • HIV survives in water, so you can get HIV from swimming pools, baths, shower areas, washing clothes, or from drinking water. = MYTH
    • FYI: Remember, HIV is very fragile outside of the human body.
  • Animals can get HIV as well. = MYTH
    • FYI: HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, which means that the infection can only be passed between humans.

 

How do I protect myself from STIs?

There are multiple ways in which you can take care of yourself and enjoy safe sex. Here are some tips you should consider:

  • Each time you have oral, anal, or vaginal sex, you can protect yourself with a barrier such as an external or internal condom, dental dams, and/or latex or nitrile gloves. Barriers protect you and your partner(s) from sexual fluids and skin-to-skin contact, both of which can transmit STIs.
  • Have fewer partners or agree to only have sex with one person who agrees to only have sex with you. Make sure you both get tested to know for sure that neither of you has an STD. This is one of the most reliable ways to avoid STIs.
  • Get vaccinated: vaccines are safe, effective, and recommended ways to prevent hepatitis B and HPV. HPV vaccination is recommended for preteens ages 11 or 12 (or can start at age 9) and everyone through age 26, if not vaccinated already.
  • Talk with your sexual partner(s) about STIs and staying safe before having sex.
  • If you’re pregnant, consult your doctor; according to the Central for Disease Control and Prevention there are antibiotics used to treat some STIsduring pregnancy.
  • Even if you use barriers and feel fine, it’s still recommended that you get tested often. Most people with STIs don’t have symptoms or don’t know they’re infected, and they can easily pass the infection to their partners. That’s why testing is the only way to know for sure whether or not someone has an STD. Even if you’re not sexually active, precaution may be the healthiest way to go. 

 

The frequency of testing depends on your personal situation and health. For these reasons, it’s recommended that you consult your doctor to see how often you should be tested.

Remember: be honest with your doctor or nurse about your sex life (they’re not there to judge you), so they can properly diagnose and treat you (if necessary). 

 

What to do when you have STIs

The news that you have a STD can be shocking. At first, you may feel angry, embarrassed, or upset. Try to take it in stride: it’s important to know that you’re not alone.

The best thing to do when you learn you have an STD is to follow your doctor’s instructions for treating it. It’s also very important to communicate with previous or present sexual partners so they can get tested and treated. It’s not an easy conversation to have, but it’s important. Don’t be ashamed; be responsible and protect yourself and others.

Sijé Vargas
Through different social projects related to Human Rights, my education background in Literature and personal experiences as a migrant I came to the conclusion that words can help us to move forward and heal. I use writing as a method to spread the word about topics that help us imagine alternative ways of living where we are all included. I highly believe that in order to have an inclusive world we must focus on communicating the importance of holistic health and wellbeing as a key part of achieving a better life.

Amadou Barrow

My areas of expertise center around climate change and global health; Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health (RMNCAH); environmental and occupational health; health education and promotion; and health risk communications. I have experience as a lecturer at both university level in the area of health psychology, health education & promotion, water supply & sanitation, biostatistics, epidemiology and research methodology. I have published several scientific manuscripts in various reputable journals on maternal & child health morbidities and mortalities in LMIC settings. I am a passionate digital health enthusiast with a special focus on holistic wellbeing at all levels.

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Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2020, March 3). Gonorrhea. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/es-es/diseases-conditions/gonorrhea/symptoms-causes/syc-20351774

Myths about HIV and AIDS. (2020, April 14). Retrieved from https://www.avert.org/hiv-transmission-prevention/myths

National Coalition for Sexual Health. (2016, October 21). This Is How Often You Need To Get Tested For STDs, Based On Your Relationship Status. Retrieved from https://nationalcoalitionforsexualhealth.org/media-center/ncsh-in-the-news/this-is-how-often-you-need-to-get-tested-for-stds-based-on-your-relationship-status

STD Facts – Gonorrhea. (2014, January 29). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/std/gonorrhea/stdfact-gonorrhea.htm

STD Facts – Syphilis. (2017, May 8). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/std/syphilis/stdfact-syphilis.htm

This Is How Often You Need To Get Tested For STDs, Based On Your Relationship Status. (2016, October 21). National Coalition for Sexual Health. https://nationalcoalitionforsexualhealth.org/media-center/ncsh-in-the-news/this-is-how-often-you-need-to-get-tested-for-stds-based-on-your-relationship-status


Transmission | AIDS-Hilfe BW. (2019, March 3). AIDS-Hilfe Baden-Württemberg e.V. https://www.aidshilfe-bw.de/en/hiv-aids/transmission

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