This series on Women’s Health is brought to you by Tryon Medical Partners, an independent practice of nearly 90 physicians who joined forces because they share the core belief that the patient-doctor connection is the foundation for better health.

The timing seems right to have this often awkward conversation. February is the season of love after all, and we’ve just celebrated the ones we love most on Valentine’s Day.

Wherever there is love, though, there is also risk. Not just of vulnerability and for heartbreak, but of transmission of disease, Sexually Transmitted Disease. Anyone is at risk for an STD, anyone having sexual contact that is. STDs can strike no matter what your age, socioeconomic status, gender or sexual orientation. 

A few eye opening statistics for you:

  • The CDC estimates that the age population 15-24 make up almost half of the 20 million STD infections each year in the US
  • Older individuals are not exempt. In 2019 the CDC reported a 164% increase in gonorrhea and 120% increase syphilis in individuals 55 years and older
  • Women are more susceptible to acquiring infections than men due to anatomy
  • Not only are we more susceptible, the complications of STDs are more serious for women than men
  • STDs are associated not just with negatively affecting your reproductive health & ability to conceive, but also with danger to fetal and baby health
  • And they are believed to cause some cancers

Key Facts About STDs

  • Bacterial (chlamydia, gonorrhea) and Parasitic (pubic lice and trichomonas) infections are curable
  • Viral infections (herpes simplex virus and HPV) are treatable and have propensity for remission and flares
  • Bacterial and Viral STDs are spread through blood, vaginal secretions, semen 
  • Parasitic STDs are spread through skin to skin contact

HPV in Specific

HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that is the causative agent of most cervical cancers and genital warts. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “HPV infections are so common that nearly all men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives. Every year in the United States, HPV is estimated to cause nearly 35,000 cases of cancer in men and women,” said Kenesha Kirkland, MD, internal medicine doctor for Tryon Medical Partners

  • HPV has over 150 strains of which a dozen are considered high risk
  • High risk strains are associated with penile, cervical, oral, esophageal and anal cancers
  • Low risk strains cause genital warts
  • The immune system can eliminate the less aggressive forms of HPV
  • There is HPV screening available for women but not men at this time
  • The HPV Vaccine (Gardasil) was recently approved for all individuals age 9-45 years.

Chlamydia in Specific

According to the CDC, chlamydia is the most frequently reported bacterial sexually transmitted infection in the United States. 

Chlamydia is curable, but it is very important that all partners are tested for treatment to avoid reinfection,” explains Dr. Kirkland. “Left untreated in women, it can lead to infertility. Complications can arise for pregnant women as well, placing their babies at risk for eye infections and pneumonia.”

There is no connection specifically between chlamydia and HPV, however untreated chlamydia may increase a person’s chances of acquiring or transmitting HIV – the virus that causes AIDS. 

To Screen or Not to Screen?

This should not be a question. STDs are largely preventable. Most STDs have no symptoms til far progressed, so regularly screenings (at least annually) are recommended. 

KEY FACT TO KNOW: A pap smear does not screen for STDs. It screens for cancerous cells, which may have been caused by an STD. While your doctor may test you for HPV in addition the Pap test if you are older than 30, if you want to be tested for STIs, you must specifically ask your doctor or nurse.

STD screening protocols are fairly simple, requiring only a blood draw or swab. Most results can be reported within 24 hours. STD screenings are covered by all insurance plans.

Untreated STDs increase your risk of contracting or transmitting HIV, chronic pelvic pain and infertility in women and pregnancy complications. Knowing how to prevent this risk and awareness of symptoms when they occur that warrant treatment are key. 

Symptoms

Below are some symptoms to watch for: 

  • pain with urination
  • penile or vaginal discharge with odor or abnormal color
  • genital rash, blisters or eruptions of bumps
  • pelvic pain 
  • abnormal vaginal bleeding

Prevention

Experts tell us the best way to prevent an STD is to not have sex, including oral. While I plan to use this argument on a regular basis, it’s probably not realistic for most. You can lower your risk of getting an STD with the following steps:

  • Get vaccinated. There are vaccines to protect against HPV and hepatitis B.
  • Use condoms. Condoms are the best way to prevent STDs when you have sex. Just make sure to put the condom on before the penis touches the vagina, mouth, or anus. Other methods of birth control will not protect you.
  • Do not douche. Douching removes some of the normal bacteria in the vagina that protects you from infection. This may increase your risk of getting STIs.

Knowledge is key when talking about STDs and risk for transmission. Having an open and honest conversation with your partner and doctor can allow for appropriate screens to be performed. Wishful thinking and crossing fingers is never a formula for success in life and love, but especially not when it comes to protecting your long-term health.

This series is brought to you by Tryon Medical Partners, an independent medical practice dedicated to maintaining trusted patient-doctor relationships, providing excellent and personalized care, and giving you the choices in healthcare that you deserve. With eight convenient locations throughout Charlotte, Tryon Medical Partners specializes in primary care as well as cardiology, dermatology, endocrinology, gastroenterology, pulmonary, rheumatology and sleep medicine.