It's very likely someone you know has, or has had, a sexually transmitted disease (STD) or infection (STI). In 2019, an estimated 2.6 million new STD cases were reported in the United States, continuing a steady increase each year from 2014, when there were 1.9 million new cases reported. The 2019 number marked an all-time high for the sixth consecutive year. The trend has so far shown no sign of changing.
While some STDs can't be cured, the good news is that many are treatable and preventable. However, even with protection such as condoms, the spread of STDs is always possible.
If you've contracted an STD, it's important to remember that you have no reason to be ashamed of your diagnosis, and dating with an STD is possible. Sex can remain on the table once you identify the STD you acquired, learn how to manage your symptoms and communicate openly with your partners.
Spotting STDs early
After a sexual encounter with a new person, it's important to pay attention to what your body is telling you. The best way to treat and prevent the spread of STDs is to notice them early.
"Some early signs of STDs can be any new lesion or strange spot on or near the genitals, as well as any fever, joint pain and/or discharge other than within that person's normal range," said Renee Trewella, B.S.N., a registered nurse in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Miyah, who preferred not to use her last name, is positive for herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2), also known as genital herpes. She experienced symptoms similar to those described by Trewella shortly after her initial exposure.
"A few days to a week later, I had flu-like symptoms," Miyah said. "It truly felt like I had the flu except for the extreme itch I also had on my vagina."
If you experience symptoms like these after a sexual encounter, it's important to get tested, both for your own peace of mind and to prevent the spread of the infection.
When and how to test
If you find out that you've been exposed to an STD, it's a good idea to get tested even if you don't experience symptoms immediately.
"We recommend testing within five to 14 days after a known or suspected exposure, and again at three months—sooner if you develop symptoms," explained Ashley Cochran, a licensed midwife in Temple, Texas. "Testing can be blood, urine or a swab of the genital area, depending on how in depth someone needs or wants to go and what we are looking for."
There is a lot of shame and stigma around STDs, so a positive test may feel like a death sentence for your sex life. Fortunately, it doesn't have to be.
STIs such as chlamydia can be cured with antibiotics, and even STDs that can't be cured, such as herpes, can be managed with medication. Symptom management can reduce the risk of transmission to a partner.
Communication with partners
Healthcare professionals agree the best time to tell a potential partner about an STD is before sexual contact occurs.
"It is best to discuss this topic openly and prior to any and all sexual contact, if possible," Trewella said. "Details related to diseases such as herpes simplex 2, HIV status, etcetera, should be disclosed with new and potential sexual partners."
For Miyah, the conversation starts as soon as she feels things heading in a sexual direction.
"When I feel conversations and feelings turning sexual, I tell them and leave the floor open for them to ask me any questions or share their feelings on it," Miyah said. "Most of my partners respect it and trust me enough that it's not an issue and we go on to have a good time."
Open and ongoing communication is key. For example, if you have herpes simplex 2 and are controlling your symptoms with antivirals such as valacyclovir (brand name: Valtrex), it's important to alert your partner(s) of any new sores and abstain from sex during a breakout. With measures like these in place, safe sex with an STD is still very possible.
Navigating the stigma
The question of when you should inform a potential sexual partner of your STD status may seem like it has a simple answer, and many people would say it does. However, people with STDs are often understandably hesitant. It's hard to gauge how people will react because of the shame and stigma surrounding STDs. Reframing the conversation as something standard that can be discussed on a date or before sex can help.
"STI status carries a lot of misplaced shame, but truly, it's no different than telling your potential partner you have a cold," Cochran explained.
It helps to be as knowledgeable as possible about your condition so you can take all the necessary steps to avoid transmission and effectively communicate those steps to potential partners. These actions can help put everyone's mind at ease.
Many people with STDs live fulfilled lives, including a satisfying sex life. Open and thorough communication tops the list of things you can practice in order to live normally with an STD. It may seem like a scary hurdle to jump at first, but the benefits are worth it.
"I initially felt like this was the end of my sex life and that I wouldn't be able to go on and have a family like I dreamed," Miyah said. "I'm so thankful to my doctor who reminded me this isn't a death sentence and it's something that can be easily managed. I've since been in a long-term relationship, had plenty of enjoyable sexual relationships and given birth both by cesarean and vaginally.
"Herpes can definitely put a damper on things if a partner isn't willing to take things to the next level when they find out," she added. "But that's OK. There's so much life to live, and I plan to continue living it."