Whether you call them sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), one thing is true: Women are at risk of infection. Not only does a woman's anatomy make her vulnerable to STIs, women are less likely to have symptoms than men. Untreated STIs can lead to serious health issues, including infertility, cancer, and even death. It's not fun to think about, but protecting yourself from STIs like genital herpes, genital warts, chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea, and HIV is an important part of staying healthy.
Here are six ways to protect yourself from STIs:
- Get the facts. About 20 million new STIs occur in the United States every year, affecting people of all ages and backgrounds. Many STIs are spread through intimate sexual contact, but you don't have to have vaginal or anal sex to be at risk — some common STIs are spread easily by oral sex and genital touching. And because many STIs have only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, you can't tell by looking at someone whether or not they have an infection. Know the STI basics.
- Talk to your partner. It's important to talk with your partner about STIs and practicing safe sex before you have sex. Get tips for talking with your partner, and set the ground rules together. Also, don't assume you're at low risk for STIs if you have sex with only one partner at a time. That person may be having sex with others.
If you have been forced, pressured, or coerced into having sexual contact without protection, there are people who can help you. Everyone deserves to be in control of their own health, including their sexual health.
- Get tested. It's important to know whether or not you have an infection — to make sure it's treated quickly and to avoid spreading it to others. If you are infected, you can take steps to protect yourself and your partner(s). Many STIs can be easily diagnosed and treated, and under the Affordable Care Act, STI prevention, screening, and counseling services are fully covered by most insurance plans, at no cost to you. Talk to your health care provider at your annual well-woman visit about which STIs tests you might need.
Having an STI can also increase your risk for getting HIV. The same behaviors and situations that put you at risk for STIs also put you at increased risk for getting HIV. Plus, some types of STIs may cause sores or breaks in your skin that make HIV transmission easier. If you test positive for an STI, you should also get tested for HIV.
- Practice monogamy. This means being in a sexual relationship with only one partner who is also faithful to you. Make sure you've both been tested for STIs and know each other's results. Condoms should be used with any partner outside of a long-term, monogamous sexual relationship.
- Use condoms. Use a condom correctly every time you have anal, vaginal, or oral sex to reduce the risk of STI transmission. Get tips for using male and female condoms correctly.
- Get vaccinated. Safe and effective vaccines are available to help prevent the spread of the human papillomavirus (HPV). While it's recommended for kids who are 11 or 12, young women can receive the series of shots through the age of 26. HPV vaccines can help protect you from the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers. Vaccines for HPV are covered as preventive services under the Affordable Care Act, which means most insurers must cover them at no cost to you. Learn more about HPV, then talk to your doctor about whether the vaccines are right for you.
Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, taking steps to protect yourself is easier than ever. Most insurers must cover STI screening, counseling, and HPV vaccination services at no cost to you, even if you haven't met your yearly deductible.
If you think you may have been exposed to infection, get tested right away. The sooner you get a diagnosis, the sooner you can start treatment and reduce the risk of spreading it to others. Find a testing site near you.
Remember, it's your body. By taking steps to protect yourself, you can lower your risk for STIs. Please share this important reminder with the teen girls and women in your life.