Repeat after me: the most common STI symptom is no symptom at all. Most people with STIs don't even know they have them. You cannot tell if someone has an STI by looking at them or their genitals. The only way to tell for sure if you or a partner has an STI is to get tested. And, the best way to avoid STIs is to use protection every time you have sex.
This may be surprising for people who remember the graphic, extreme STI pictures from health class that were intended to scare the horniness right out of you. But, not only are these scare tactics ineffective, they also give folks inaccurate ideas about what STIs really look like. And, that’s dangerous! Let’s say we’re about to have sex with a new partner, and their genitalia looks okay — not at all like the oozing, terrifying STI pictures our gym teacher showed us in high school. We may think, "Great, they're, infection-free! I don't need protection!” But, if we’d been given the real facts instead of an exaggerated horror show, we’d know that a lack of symptoms doesn’t always mean a clean bill of health, and therefore we might be more likely to use protection.
Of course, some people with STIs will show symptoms, and some symptoms are more obvious than others (like sores). But, it’s also common for people with STIs not to notice symptoms, or to think they’re caused by something else. Another fun fact? One in three people will say they don’t have an STI when they really do.
Bottom line: You can’t tell STI status by looking at someone, and you can’t take their word for it. If you’re sexually active, use protection like condoms or a dental dam and get tested at least once a year.
STI testing typically requires little more than peeing in a cup. Even HIV testing is usually needle-free: With some HIV tests, you simply rub the inside your cheek with what looks like a tiny cotton spatula and get your results in minutes. (The doctor may recommend a follow-up blood test for HIV, and some clinics may use blood tests regularly, but at lots of places it’s just a cheek swab.)
Other times, STIs are diagnosed with a visual exam, or by screening discharge from the vagina, penis, or sores on or around your genitals and/or mouth. Some STIs (like herpes and syphilis) can be detected with a blood test, but doctors usually just give a diagnosis by looking at or taking fluids from sores that these infections cause.
Wondering where you can get one of these hassle-free tests? Free or low-cost STI testing is available at Planned Parenthood health centers.
Quick note: Pap tests don’t test for STIs, and STI testing isn’t always included in your regular physical and/or pelvic (aka vaginal) exams. So, if you want to be tested for STIs, make sure to ask your nurse or doctor.
People tend to freak out over STIs, and there’s good reason to be concerned: Some (like HIV, the virus that causes AIDS) stick around for life, and can even be fatal. But others (like chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis) are totally curable and don’t cause any permanent damage if dealt with quickly — in other words, not a big deal. And, nowadays there are many treatments for more serious STIs (including HIV), which can help you live a healthy life and avoid spreading the infection to others. If you have an STI, the sooner you find out about it and start treatment, the better.
Of course, we should all strive to be as careful and protected as possible when it comes to our health, sexual and otherwise. You don’t get to choose which STIs you are or aren’t exposed to, which is why safer sex is so important. Some STIs are pretty dangerous, and even the minor ones can lead to serious problems (like infertility) if left untreated. Your sexual health isn’t something you want to play Russian roulette with, but don’t let fear or embarrassment stop you from protecting yourself and your partners, either.
STIs, depending on the type, can be transmitted through semen, vaginal fluids, blood, breast milk, and skin-to-skin contact. This means any sexy stuff that exposes you and your partner to each other’s genital fluids and/or skin puts you at risk for STIs. This includes (but isn’t limited to): oral sex, vaginal sex, anal sex, sharing sex toys, touching your genitals after touching your partner’s genitals, and dry humping without underwear.
To protect yourself, use condoms and water-based or silicone lube for vaginal and anal sex. Lube helps condoms feel better and helps keep them from breaking. It’s also an absolute must for anal sex because the anus doesn’t self-lubricate like a vagina. Without lube, anal sex can lead to irritation or tearing that can increase the chance of STI (including HIV) transmission. Condoms should go on when the penis is hard but before there’s any skin-to-skin genital touching, and stay on until sex is finished (even if the erection is lost and you have to roll on a new condom at some point). And, throwing rubbers on sex toys you share can prevent exposure to each other’s sex fluids and keep your playthings nice and clean.
Oral sex is less risky in terms of HIV, but can still spread other infections, like herpes, gonorrhea, and HPV. Condoms make oral sex safer (and flavored condoms make it tastier!). Dental dams for oral sex on a vulva or anus will also protect both partners. If you don’t have a dental dam, you can cut a condom up the side, and open it flat.
Friends, STIs are kind of a crapshoot. There are people who have tons of sexual partners and never get an STI (either because they always use protection, are lucky, or both). There are people who have sex only one time with only one person and get an STI. There are people who are born with STIs, or get them from non-sexual activities (like sharing needles). There are people who get STIs from a sexual assault. There are people who get STIs from a partner who cheated on them, or was dishonest about their STI status, or had an STI for years and didn’t know it. People of all genders, sexual orientations, relationship statuses, races, religions, nationalities, economic classes, and ages get STIs — more than 50 percent of us will get one at least once in our lives. Think of them like any other infection you might get: Take precautions to avoid getting one, but realize they sometimes happen anyway.
STIs don’t define people. Nobody “deserves” to get an STI. An STI isn’t a “punishment,” and having an STI doesn’t mean you’re “dirty” — it means you’re human.
Because our culture has some pretty unhealthy, negative attitudes about sex, STIs often come with a side dish of shame and embarrassment that other infections don’t. But, the stigma surrounding STIs is why so many people are afraid to do the very things that can prevent them: getting tested, using protection, and talking openly with partners. Being more honest and less judgmental about STIs is one of the best ways we can help keep ourselves and the people we know healthy.
-Kendall at Planned Parenthood
Beyond serving as a go-to source for vital reproductive care, the folks at Planned Parenthood— a team of experts in medicine, sexual health, and law — are passionate, informed advocates for knowing your own body. Planned Parenthood's very own Kendall McKenzie is here to tackle the big issues.