One of the best ways we can practice safe sex is by getting educated on sexually transmitted infections (STIs). While this acronym may bring an anxiety-induced shiver up your spine (deep breaths, friends), the best way to prevent getting or spreading an STI is to be informed and educated on the facts, so you can weed out the exaggerations, myths, and horror stories.
Let’s start with the basics: according to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 30 different types of bacteria, viruses and parasites can be spread and shared through physical contact, with many of them being undetectable without proper testing. It is not only important to be properly informed before having sex, but to continue to get tested, practice total transparency with your partner(s), and know that there’s absolutely no shame in keeping a condom in your bag— in fact, we find it very empowering!
Sadly, only 17 states in the U.S. require medically accurate sex ed classes, so often times, students do not often receive necessary education on how to prevent STIs, and false information is able to spread more freely. Lack of health education also perpetuates the stigma around having an STI, which doesn't help anything. There is no reason to feel ashamed or shame anyone else for contracting an STI. After all, you wouldn't judge someone for catching a cold or the flu, right? STIs are no different.
So we partnered with Emily Rymland, Clinical Development Manager of Nurx, to create a helpful guide on commonly searched STI-related topics to help you separate fact from fiction.
Fiction: Condoms protect you from all STIs.
Condoms (external and internal, or commonly described as "male" and "female") are about 98% effective in protecting a person from chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, trichomoniasis and Hepatitis B, which are all passed through genital fluids. However, condoms are not very helpful in preventing the spread of human papillomavirus (HPV) and herpes, as those are often on parts of the body that the condom doesn’t cover, and are spread through skin to skin contact.
Fact: You can contract an STI from kissing.
Herpes I, which may cause sores around the mouth, and Herpes II, which more typically causes sores around the genitals or rectum, but can also infect the mouth, can be spread through kissing. Syphilis can also be spread through kissing when in the first stages of the disease, although this is less common.
Fact and Fiction: STIs are genetic.
Technically speaking, STIs cannot be genetic, but they can be passed by a mother to their child during pregnancy or delivery. Some STIs have serious health consequences for babies, so pregnant women should be screened for STIs during their pregnancy to minimize the risk of spreading during birth.
Fiction: You can get an STI from sitting on a toilet.
The short answer is no, primarily for two reasons. First, the bacteria or viruses of an STI cannot survive very long on the surface of a toilet seat. Second, for the infection to transmit, the germs would have to get to the urethra or genital tract which is very unlikely to happen on a toilet seat.
Fact: Some STIs don’t have physical signs or symptoms.
It can be very difficult to tell if you have a STI. Many can be asymptomatic, meaning there are no visible signs. For example, HIV can exist within the body for varying lengths of time before a person shows signs of infection. The same is true for all of the STIs; this is why it is recommended that a person gets screened annually (or more frequently if you have a new partner or multiple partners).
Fiction: Wearing two condoms at once provides better protection from STIs.
Doubling up on condoms is never recommended because the friction between the two condoms increases the risk of the condom tearing and therefore being ineffective. (A note from the editior: We may have to blame one-hit-wonder rapper Asher Roth for this bad sex tip, as he once sang that when it comes to condoms, “put two on” in his 2009 classic “I Love College”).
Fact: You can get an STI through oral sex.
Anyone exposed to an STI can get the infection in their mouth, throat, genitals or rectum. If the mouth has contact with any infected area, you could potentially contract syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia,
Fiction: You should only get tested for STIs if you are showing signs.
As mentioned, many STIs can be asymptomatic. In order to truly know your status you should get screened on a regular basis. Talk to your health provider about being tested for a full range of STIs, including HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis, and Hepatitis B.