Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) have skyrocketed in California during the last five years. According to the Department of Health, common STIs like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis have increased by a whopping 45 percent, with more than 300,000 cases of these STIs being reported in 2017 alone.
What’s going on here? Although we don’t know all the reasons for this dramatic increase, people appear less concerned about getting infected—trusting that medical treatments will restore them to health. The downside of this is that people gain a false sense of security; they believe STIs are no longer a threat. Unfortunately, this is not the case: STIs are becoming more common and more drug resistant, and thus, more dangerous. To augment this problem, we now have websites and online apps that facilitate sexual encounters without regard for safe sex practices.
One of the best ways to prevent STIs from spreading is to use a condom. In the 1990s and 2000s, fear of contracting HIV/AIDS increased condom use because in the early days, HIV/AIDS was a death sentence. Now, with improved treatments and even prophylaxis (preventive treatment) for HIV available, people are less concerned, resulting in a decreased use of condoms, which in turn, has resulted in a significant increase in STIs.
Here’s some information about the most common STIs:
- Human papillomavirus (HPV): a viral infection spread by skin-to-skin contact (intercourse is not required). The most common symptom is warts. If left untreated, it can lead to cervical, anal, penile, and throat cancers. People can be vaccinated against some of the most dangerous strains of HPV.
- Genital herpes: a viral infection caused by sexual or skin-to-skin contact. People can get herpes by coming into contact with someone with is infected. They are more contagious if they have an active sore, but the virus is contagious without obvious sores. There is no cure for herpes, but medication can keep symptoms at bay and reduce the chance of spreading the infection.
- Chlamydia and gonorrhea: common bacterial infections that are sometimes contracted at the same time. They can cause pelvic pain and discharge, and in men, burning urination or testicular pain. However, in many cases people have no symptoms, yet left untreated can cause infertility. People can get chlamydia by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Chlamydia can be treated with antibiotics, although antibiotic-resistant strains are becoming a problem.
- HIV/AIDS: a virus that is passed primarily via blood during sexual intercourse. HIV/AIDS interferes with the body’s ability to fight infections. Treatments include anti-retroviral medication, including PrEP, a daily medication taken to prevent HIV infection.
- Syphilis: a bacterial infection usually spread by sexual contact that starts as a small, painless sore. Syphilis develops in stages, with the final stages sometimes including mental disorders, paralysis and death. It can be treated with antibiotics.
Although many STIs are treatable, people without symptoms don’t seek treatment because they don’t realize they need to. Instead, they unknowingly spread the infections.
To prevent contracting or spreading sexually transmitted infections, here are a few tips:
- Use condoms—every time.
- Get tested regularly, and ask your partner(s) to do the same.
- If you become infected, seek treatment and communicate with your partner(s) so they can get treated, too.
- Get vaccinated. The HPV vaccine is safe, effective, and can help you avoid HPV-related health problems like genital warts and some cancers.
- Educate yourself. Here’s a place to start: cdc.gov/std/healthcomm/fact_sheets.htm
If you have any unusual discharge, inflammation, odors, sores or other symptoms, consult with your healthcare provider immediately. Untreated STIs can cause serious problems, from pain to infertility and even death.
MCHC Health Centers and other federally qualified health centers offer STI testing, as do organizations such as MCAVHN and the Mendocino County Public Health Department. Testing is confidential, and in many cases, low-cost or free. If you feel uncomfortable telling a scheduler why you want an appointment, you can say it is for a personal matter you would rather discuss with your provider. Get tested at least annually if you have multiple sexual partners.
Larry Aguirre is a physician assistant at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.