An alarming 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that each year approximately nine million women in the United States are diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Transmitted through sexual contact, some STIs can be cured while others cannot. These infections — created when a bacteria, virus or parasite enters and grows in or on your body — affect men and women of all backgrounds and economic levels, with half of all new infections appearing in young people between 15-24 years old.
Certain types of untreated STIs in women may cause difficulties in getting pregnant, permanent infertility, health problems during pregnancy for the mother and baby, infections in other parts of the body, organ damage, various kinds of cancer including cervical cancer or even death. In addition, particular STIs can make it easier to contract the human immunodeficiency virus, more commonly referred to as HIV.
One of the greatest difficulties in diagnosing STIs is that many people demonstrate only mild symptoms or none at all, and the symptoms are easily mistaken for urinary tract or yeast infections.
If you think you may have contracted an STI, get tested as soon as possible. Many individuals are too embarrassed to speak with a physician or nurse about their sex life, but being honest with a medical professional is the only way to proceed with testing and necessary treatments.
STI screening may include a pelvic and physical exam, a blood test, a urine test and/or a fluid or tissue sample taken by a doctor or nurse with a cotton swab off of the fluid or discharge from an infected place. Treatment for STIs may involve taking medicine by mouth or getting a shot. For STIs that cannot be cured, such as herpes or HIV/AIDS, medications can help reduce the signs and symptoms.
For those diagnosed with an STI, doctors recommend contacting their sexual partners and encouraging them to be tested as well. The STI may have spread to you from a former sex partner, which is why physicians encourage testing after each new sex partner. If you test positive for HIV, syphilis or gonorrhea, some cities and states require past or current sex partners to be informed.
The best way to avoid acquiring an STI is to refrain from vaginal, oral and anal sex. Those who are sexually active can lower the risk of contracting an STI by getting a vaccination to protect against HPV and hepatitis B, using condoms, getting tested for STIs, being monogamous, do not douche and refrain from abusing alcohol or drugs. None of these steps alone can guarantee you won’t acquire an STI, but when used together these steps put the odds more in your favor.
Another way for women to avoid STIs is to be vigilant in protecting against bacterial vaginosis (BV), which is a vaginal infection. Created by changes in the amount of certain types of bacteria in the vagina, BV is common and all women are potentially susceptible to it, particularly ages 15-44. Left untreated, BV can increase the risk of sexually transmitted infections and can cause difficulties during pregnancy.
If you suspect you may have a sexually transmitted infection, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider as soon as possible. If you do not have a primary care provider, please call 317-880-8687.
Nydia Nunez-Estrada, M.D.
Eskenazi Health Urgent Care East