How to protect yourself from STDs

How to protect yourself from STDs

Sexually transmitted diseases are a legitimate worry; STD rates are on the rise and with 20 million new infections every year.

You need to be aware of the risks, symptoms and treatments for STDs — also known as sexually transmitted diseases — and see your gynecologist if you think you may have caught one. While STDs are out there, "there are things you can do to minimize your risk," said Khai Ling Tan, MD, an OB/GYN practicing at HonorHealth.

She noted that STDs are more common than you probably think. You should seek treatment if you're experiencing symptoms and make regular STD testing part of your overall health care plan. Also, realize that STDs don't carry the stigma they did decades ago.

Common STDs include syphilis, gonorrhea, HIV/AIDS, herpes, chlamydia, hepatitis B, trichomoniasis and HPV. The most common STD is the human papillomavirus (HPV), a family of 40 different viruses. They're classified as either low-risk or high-risk. Low-risk viruses cause genital warts, bumps and/or itching as the most common symptoms. The high risk strains usually present with abnormal Pap results which carry a higher risk of cervical cancer later in life.

Other common symptoms of STDs include abnormal vaginal discharge, pain during urination or sex, and physical changes in the genitalia. Keep in mind: Just because you don't have symptoms doesn't mean you don't have an STD. That's why regular testing is so important.

Annual exam is key

An annual well-woman exam is one of the most important things you can do to protect your sexual health. Your doctor will do a physical examination of the pelvic area and the internal and external genitalia to look for any abnormalities. You should also have a Pap test, with the doctor taking a small sampling of cells from your cervix to screen for cervical cancer. This will also show if you have HPV or other STDs. Pap tests are recommended starting at age 21, regardless of sexual activity, and every three years after until age 30; then every 5 years if Pap test shows normal cells and HPV testing is negative. Screening should continue until age 65 or 70, depending on the individual. Your doctor will advise you on how frequent you need to have a Pap test based on your individual case.

Other things you can do to reduce your risk of STDs is to practice safe sex: Be aware of your partner's sexual history and use protection. While condoms are very good at protecting against most STDs, they aren't as effective when it comes to HPV. That's why Dr. Tan and the American Cancer Society recommend the HPV vaccine.

Because talking about STDs can be uncomfortable or awkward for many people, your gynecologist may proactively start the discussion. Your doctor will ask about your sexual history, current relationship status, sexual preferences, and what you use for protection and offer to do STD testing as part of your routine exam.

This is the time to be totally honest. Your doctor has quite literally heard all kinds of health scenarios and stories and is there to help — not judge. If your gynecologist doesn't bring it up, you can and should let him or her know about any health concerns or questions you may have. The only wrong question is the one not asked.

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