Author: Giuseppina Kenyon-Savard, DO
Sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs (sometimes called sexually transmitted infections, or STIs) affect people of all ages, backgrounds, and from all walks of life. In the U.S. alone there are approximately 20 million new cases each year, about half of which occur among youth ages 15-24 years.
There are many things you can do to reduce your risk of contracting an sexually transmitted disease or infection (STD/STI).
We hear often that “abstinence” is a fool-proof way to avoid the risks of sexual activity, but what exactly is abstinence? There are different definitions for abstinence. In medical terms, abstinence means you are not having any kind of sex with someone else. Someone who chooses abstinence may have sexual feelings but chooses not to have sex with others–no oral, vaginal or anal sex of any kind. Someone who practices sexual abstinence does not run any risk of contracting an STI or having an unwanted pregnancy. You have a right to choose abstinence and any partner who doesn’t respect your wishes may not be the best partner for you.
Another type of abstinence sometimes discussed is selective abstinence. Many people are sexually active but limit what they do to avoid STD/STIs and/or pregnancy or because they do not feel ready to do some sexual things. Someone who chooses to be selectively abstinent might have some kinds of sex but not others. Someone who practices selective abstinence may or may not run the risk of contracting an STI and/or having an unwanted pregnancy, depending on the activities in which he or she does.
Mutual monogamy (only having sex with your partner) is another way to limit exposure to STIs. If neither partner has ever had sexual contact of any kind with another person, there is no risk of STIs. If either person has ever had sex with anyone else, we recommend getting tested and, if necessary, treated for STIs at the beginning of each relationship. Know that many STIs can be “silent,” causing no noticeable symptoms in men or women. Also know that some STIs may not be detectable through testing for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, so talk to your healthcare provider about the appropriate time to get tested.
Talk with your partner(s) about STIs, sexual health, and prevention prior to sexual activity. Open communication fosters trust and respect among partners and is a key aspect of reducing the risks for STIs. Also, don’t be afraid to talk honestly with your healthcare provider about your sexual practices or to ask about STD/STI tests, including determining which STIs you’ve been tested for—and which you haven’t been.
The only way to know if you or your partner has an STI is to get tested. Get tested and ask your sexual partners to get tested before you start having sex.
Low-risk and high-risk activities
Low risk activities include open mouth kissing (French kissing) and hand-to-genital contact. Activities that are higher risk for STD/STIs include oral sex (genital or anal), vaginal intercourse and other genital-to-genital contact, anal intercourse and sharing sex toys with no barriers. Both vaginal intercourse and any contact between a penis and a vagina are high risk for pregnancy. A woman can become pregnant even if a man “pulls out” and does not ejaculate into her vagina.
Barriers such as condoms can also reduce the risk of contracting a STI or having an unwanted pregnancy. Learn more about barriers and safer sex. National Condom Week is observed on Friday, February 14th, 2020. It has been observed annually for 8 days starting on February 14th since 1978.
Avoid alcohol and recreational drug use
Avoiding alcohol and recreational drug use reduces the risk of contracting an STD/STI, having an unwanted pregnancy, or being coerced to have sex. Alcohol and drug use can reduce our ability to make good decisions and make it less likely that we will actually implement the safer sex decisions we had made previously. It may also make us more likely to be coerced into participating in an activity without being able to give our full and informed consent