What are STIs?
STI stands for sexually transmitted infection. They’re also called STDs, or sexually transmitted diseases. STIs or STDs are infections that you can get from having sexual contact with someone who already has an STI. Sexual contact includes not only penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex, but also oral (blow job, head, eating out, going down on, rimming) and anal sex. This includes putting your genitals or mouth on or in someone else’s genitals (including in or around the anus), and vice versa. Manual sex (hand job or rimming) also puts you at risk for some STIs. Even though masturbation (or touching yourself for pleasure) is one type of sex, masturbation carries no STI risk.
Some STIs, like chlamydia and gonorrhea, are completely curable—even though they can still lead to serious complications if they’re not treated. Others, like herpes and HIV, are treatable but not curable. This means that once you get them, you’ll have them for the rest of your life.
How do I protect myself?
Some STIs are spread only through certain body fluids, like semen (come or ejaculate), vaginal fluids, and blood. Others can be spread through sexual skin-to-skin contact. You CANNOT get an STI through casual contact like a handshake, or from public toilet seats.
The only way to be completely sure you won’t get an STI is to not have sex with another person—including oral, anal or manual sex. However, if you’re having sex there are several steps you can take to protect yourself and your partner.
Here’s how you can significantly reduce the risk of getting or passing on an STI.
- Use barrier methods (internal or external condoms and dental dams) the right way, EVERY time you have sex—including oral sex.
- Get regularly tested for STIs. Talk to your health care provider about how often you should get tested.
- Talk to your partner(s) about safer sex and when they were last tested. For specific examples of how you can start this conversation, check here!
- Use lube. Lube reduces friction, which can cause tiny, invisible tears in your skin. These tears are entry points for STIs, and make it more likely that you’ll get or spread an STI. Lube is no substitute for a condom or dental dam, though. We go into more detail about the different kinds of lube and how to use it here.
- Limit the number of people you have sex with, or have a monogamous relationship (meaning that you both only have sex with each other). Having sex with more people will increase your risk of getting an STI. If you are in a monogamous relationship or have sex with a limited number of people, it is still recommended that you both get tested regularly for STIs and use condoms.
- Have a monogamous relationship. If you and your partner have both been tested for STIs since you last had sex with someone else (and you’re both STI-free), you can’t give each other an STI. We still recommend using condoms, just because it gives you more control over your sexual health.
How do I know if I have an STI?
The symptoms of STIs vary, but the most common symptom is no symptom at all. The only way to know for sure that you have (or don’t have) an STI is to get tested.
Other common symptoms of STIs are:
- Weird discharge from your vagina or penis. Unsure if your vaginal discharge is normal or not? Check here.
- Any skin changes, including painful or itchy bumps around your penis, vulva or anus
- Pain when you urinate
- Abdominal or stomach pain
- Pain during intercourse
- Changes in menses
Keep in mind that these could all also be symptoms of infections that aren’t sexually transmitted, like a urinary tract infection (UTI), yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis (BV). The only way to know whether you have an STI is to get tested.
I think I have an STI. What should I do?
Make an appointment with your health care provider. They can do tests to figure out what’s going on, and give you the treatment you need. If you have an STI, it’s important to get it treated as soon as possible.
Be honest with your health care provider. We know talking about sex can feel awkward and embarrassing, but it’s actually completely normal! Your doctor is used to talking about sex, and just wants to keep you healthy.
If you feel uncomfortable going to the doctor you normally see, you can get free or affordable treatment at many community health clinics, like a Planned Parenthood. Find a clinic here.
When should I get tested?
Getting regularly tested for STIs is a normal, routine part of staying healthy, just like getting your blood pressure checked. Talk to your health care provider about how often you should get tested.
You should also get tested:
- Before having sex without a condom with a new partner.
- If you had sex without a condom, or the condom broke or slipped off.
- If you have any symptoms of an STI.
I have an STI. Now what?
First, remember that having an STI does not say anything about who you are as a person, just like having the flu doesn’t.
Listen to your doctor. Take any medication they prescribe. While you’re being treated, do not have sex. If the infection isn’t completely gone, you could still pass it on to any partners—and they can pass it back to you! Having one STI can also make you more vulnerable to other infections. Ask your doctor about exactly how long you should wait to have sex.
Tell anyone you’ve recently had sex with about your diagnosis. Ask your doctor about exactly how far back you need to notify. It’s important that they know to get tested, so they don’t leave the STI untreated and pass it on to others (or, again, back to you). All STIs are treatable, but some can lead to serious health consequences if they’re not dealt with. We talk more about how to have this conversation here. If you feel like it isn’t safe to tell them, tell your health care provider. They may be able to contact your partners for you anonymously.
Keep in mind that there are specific laws surrounding HIV disclosure. Learn more here.
This information is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services, only general information for education purposes only.