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

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.