Each year, 20 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, infect Americans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that half of those infected are people between 15 and 24 years old. These conditions include bacterial infections, parasites, and viruses. Although antibiotics and antiviral medications can cure some of them, others have no cures yet and can require ongoing treatment. The good news is most STDs are preventable, and the risk of contracting some can be lessened with vaccines. However, STDs, especially when they remain untreated, pose serious health risks. First, untreated individuals often pass their conditions on to others. Second, according to the CDC, untreated STDs can result in lasting damage to health, including reproductive problems, chronic pain, cancer, fetal and perinatal issues, and increased risk of contracting HIV.
STDs have skyrocketed in recent years. The CDC’s “Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance Report,” covering data from 2018, found that rates of syphilis have increased by 71 percent, gonorrhea by 63 percent, and chlamydia by 19 percent since 2014. In fact, the combined number of syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia cases in the United States reached an all-time record in 2018. The CDC attributes this to several factors, among them a declining use of condoms, especially among young people and men who have sex with men. Fortunately, individuals — especially college students, a group tending to be at high risk — can take a proactive approach to sexual health by staying informed.
Learning about STDs can start with understanding the significance of the terms used in sexual health discussions, for example, STI vs. STD. In addition, individuals can benefit from prevention tips and resources to turn to should they suspect they have an STD.
The terms STI and STD sound similar, and some health organizations use them interchangeably. Technically, however, STIs and STDs are different.
Sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, are infections that have not yet developed into diseases, and can include bacteria, viruses, or parasites such as pubic lice. They are usually transmitted during sexual activities through an exchange of bodily fluids or skin-to-skin contact where the infection is active. Nonsexual activities in which bodily fluids are exchanged can also transmit STIs. For example, people who share needles can infect each other with HIV.
Sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, on the other hand, are diseases that result from STIs, and therefore suggest a more serious problem. All STDs start out as infections. Pathogens enter the body and begin multiplying. When these pathogens disrupt normal body functions or damage structures in the body, they become STDs. However, some STIs may never develop into diseases. For example, most HPV cases go away on their own without causing health problems. In these instances, the HPV is an STI. If the HPV infection develops into genital warts or cervical cancer, then it is considered an STD.
According to the American Sexual Health Association, a growing number of public health experts believe the term STD can mislead people because “disease” suggests a person has an obvious medical problem, which is not always the case. For this reason the term “infection” is often considered more accurate.
Individuals can try to keep themselves STI and STD free in several ways. Some of these options may not fit certain lifestyle choices and preferences. However, people can use a variety of methods to reduce their risk of STI and STD contraction. What matters is that individuals choose a method, or a combination of methods, that suits their needs.
Avoiding exposure to infected bodily fluids is the best way to avoid STIs and STDs. This may mean abstaining from sex or avoiding the transfer of bodily fluids in other ways, like using barrier devices including condoms, or not sharing needles. Latex condoms can be effective for STIs transmitted exclusively through genital fluids, such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, HIV, and trichomoniasis. However, because condoms may not cover all infected areas, they may not successfully protect people from STIs transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, such as syphilis, herpes, and HPV, according to the CDC.
Another option is mutual monogamy between people who have no prior sexual experience or who are STI and STD free. Although this arrangement does not eliminate all risks, it can significantly limit exposure to STIs and STDs. People who choose this option should get tested for STIs/STDs and wait for negative results before engaging in sexual activities with their partner.
Vaccinations are another form of prevention — people can get vaccinated for hepatitis A and B, as well as for HPV. Vaccinations for HIV and herpes are in the works and may be available soon, according to the American Sexual Health Association. Until the vaccine for HIV becomes available, however, individuals in high-risk situations for the virus can take pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, a pill taken daily to prevent HIV contraction. PrEP prevents 99 percent of sexually contracted HIV cases; however, it does not guard against other STIs.
Sexually active individuals can safeguard their health by scheduling regular doctor visits and getting tested regularly for STIs and STDs. People living in remote areas or in other situations where testing may not be readily available may find help and resources from Planned Parenthood. According to Planned Parenthood, more than half of their health centers are in rural and medically underserved areas. By calling their national hotline, 1-800-230-PLAN, individuals can find health centers near them. Mobile clinics, or customized medical vehicles that travel to underserved communities to provide care, may also help individuals with limited access. Additionally, local nonprofit organizations often provide care and treatment at reduced costs.
Talk to a medical professional to learn more about STIs vs. STDs or to deal with concerns about STI exposure. Trained professionals can offer reliable information and perform STI testing when needed. These services are available at doctor’s offices, hospitals, medical nonprofits, or urgent care facilities. In addition, many colleges offer confidential, nonjudgmental healthcare through campus health centers where students can get screened for STDs, schedule appointments with trained nurses at reduced rates, have access to free condoms and other safe sex supplies, and get specific information about particular STIs and their symptoms and treatment.
When people contract STIs or think they may have been exposed to an STI, anxiety and fear easily take over. Luckily, almost all universities offer counseling and on-site clinics. Going to a counseling center, either on or off campus, can help manage the stress and anxiety surrounding STIs. Often, student fees cover on-campus counseling services. Colleges also sometimes offer counseling at reduced rates after the first few sessions.
Sexual health plays an important role in people’s lives. It can impact a person’s emotional, physical, and mental well-being. That is why everyone should have access to the resources and information they need to maintain good sexual health. Professionals who earn a Master of Public Health can help promote sexual health in many ways.
- Use data to evaluate the current surge in STIs and determine effective approaches to address it.
- Advocate for increased funding and expansion of sexual health programs that improve access to STI testing, information about prevention measures, and sexual health resources.
- Develop programs that encourage safer sex practices, educate people about risk factors for STIs, and increase awareness about the importance of STI screening.
- Conduct research to better understand the drop in condom use and how to address it.
- Use their behavioral science expertise to devise strategies that motivate high-risk groups to make choices that safeguard sexual health.