How easy is it to contract an STD? Two doctors give us the scoop

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Hey, dear readers. In case you didn’t know, April is STD Awareness Month, and we’re using this opportunity to arm you with all the sexually transmitted disease (STD) knowledge you need to go about your sex life in a safe (and fun) way. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, so we’re hoping to answer the most important questions you may have about STDs and STIs, giving you peace of mind and making you feel empowered about your sexual health.

One thing you may be wondering is exactly how easy it is to contract an STD. There are many myths and misconceptions about STDs out there, but one thing is certain: Getting an STD is incredibly common. Don’t panic — we got the scoop from two OB/GYNs, who insist that the numbers shouldn’t necessarily scare you.

HelloGiggles spoke with Margaret Polaneczky, M.D. FACOG, Associate Professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medicine, who confirms that getting an STD is quite common.

“The majority of sexually active people will get Human Papillomavirus (HPV) in their lifetime,” Dr. Polaneczky tells HG.

But before you freak out, it’s important to understand the facts and realize that this may not be as big a deal as you think.

When it comes to STIs, it’s very important to point out the demographics. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), adolescents and young adults in the 15 to 24 age range have twice the rate of STIs than the general population. Half of all STIs occur in this age group, eve though they make up a quarter of the population. That’s why arming young people with information is so crucial, says Montana-based OB/GYN Gina Nelson, M.D.

There are a few reasons why young people, in particular, are more susceptible to STIs. Dr. Nelson tells HG there’s a “lack of information about how STIs are acquired.” This is paired with “more partners” that are “less likely to use condoms, but more likely to mix alcohol and drugs with sex.”

Lastly, a “lack of access to care where screening and treatment of STIs can occur.” That’s not the best combination of factors.

Another startling fact: Young women’s bodies are more susceptible to STIs because their cervical cells are exposed, and thus more susceptible to infection. According to Dr. Polaneczky, this is purely a “biological mechanism” of young women’s bodies.
Dr. Polaneczky adds that the STD rate is higher in certain populations, like certain ethnic groups, racial populations, and socioeconomic backgrounds. This can be because of a lack of sexual health education and ability to easily access contraception. The CDC says that “gay and bisexual men [also] face the greatest risk of becoming infected with an STD.”
According to the CDC, the three most common STIs are chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. The total combined cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis reported in 2015 reached the highest number ever.

Yikes. But what are the chances for a sexually active person to actually get an STI?

Just like Dr. Polaneczky says, the CDC reports that HPV is so common that almost everyone will come into contact with the virus in their lives. As a result, it’s so common that patients are not screened for it when they’re tested for other STIs, says Dr. Polaneczky, despite the fact that “more than 40 percent of women [have] had HPV in their lifetime.”
The good news is, according to the CDC, 90 percent of HPV infections don’t come with any symptoms and they end up going away on their own within a couple of years.
However, that doesn’t mean women shouldn’t protect themselves from getting the virus, because some HPV types can lead to cancer or genital warts if they’re not tended to.
 As far as other common STIs, simple statistics show just how common they are to contract. According to Dr. Nelson, “Chlamydia and syphilis each have an average case rate of 3 percent (two thirds of all chlamydia occurs in the 15-24 age group,) while the gonorrhea case rate is about 5 percent.” She notes that they “can all be treated with antibiotics. However, if left untreated, they can each lead to very serious health conditions.”
There are less common STIs to be aware of as well.
“Less common but very important STIs are HIV and viral hepatitis, which includes hepatitis B and hepatitis C. These are serious life threatening infections, even though some treatments are available,” Dr. Nelson says.

“Among adults in the United States, hepatitis B is most commonly spread through sexual contact and accounts for nearly two-thirds of acute hepatitis B cases,” Dr. Nelson continues. “In fact, hepatitis B is 50–100 times more infectious than HIV and can be passed through the exchange of body fluids, such as semen, vaginal fluids, and blood.”
There is a vaccine for hepatitis B, though. Dr. Nelson also reminds us that, if you feel like you’ve been exposed to hepatitis B, you can get a vaccine within 24 hours to prevent the infection from staying in you body.
“Hepatitis C can be passed by sexual contact, though not as easily as hepatitis B or HIV. There is a treatment but it is sometimes unsuccessful. HIV can be passed though various forms of sexual activity. Highest risk is anal sex, followed by vaginal sex, then oral sex,” Dr. Nelson tells HG.
It’s also important to keep in mind that, although there are treatments for HIV and hepatitis, there aren’t any cures.
Now that we know how common STIs are, it’s crucial to note how to prevent from contracting them in the first place. According to both doctors, condoms are your best bet, but they are far from perfect.
“Condoms can help prevent STIs. However, they must be checked before hand so they are not damaged, expired or overheated from storage,” Dr. Nelson instructs. “They must be properly applied and removed, and not burst or slip. They must be used every time regardless of the time in the menstrual cycle.”

Dr. Polaneczky agrees, adding that “spermicides can increase the chances of HIV transmission, so condoms with spermicides should be avoided.”

In addition to regular condom use, you have the option for getting a vaccine for two STIs — HPV and hepatitis B. No matter what kind of precautions you take, though, Dr. Nelson urges everyone who has sex to “be regularly tested and treated for any STIs.” Noted.

Dr. Nelson advises against “high-risk sexual practices,” such as having multiple sex partners without knowing much of their background, combining drugs and alcohol with sex, etc. Finally, if you’re ever unsure of what you’re about to get yourself into, Dr. Nelson urges, “The only sure way not to get an STI is not to have sex.”

However, even though you’re now armed with knowledge to make safe choices with your sexual health, it’s also important to remove the stigma attached to an STD diagnosis.

“When you get a cold, do you pass judgement on the person who gave it to you? To judge people based on something as common as an HPV diagnosis or the herpes virus is absurd,” Dr. Polaneczky says.

We couldn’t agree more. Everyone has sex — just like everyone eats, poops, and sleeps — and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not great that STDs are a common thing to catch, but it does remind us that it shouldn’t be a taboo topic. Encourage others to speak about their experiences and get tested. The safer sex we all have, the better our health will be. Have fun and be safe!

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