"Basically, the way to think about STIs is, generally, those caused by bacteria, you can cure, but those caused by viruses you have to live with and suppress: herpes, HPV, genital warts and HIV," explained Jeff Foster, M.D., a general practitioner in the United Kingdom. "We rarely consider genital warts or herpes as dangerous but they can be linked with other health conditions; HPV and cervical cancer, for example."
The word "incurable" often translates to "infectious" in people's brains, but incurable STIs are actually fairly easy to manage, which minimizes the chances of further transmission. Over 500 million people are estimated to be living with herpes worldwide. Many patients experience long stretches without symptoms before painful sores around the genitals or anus occur. By using antiviral medications that reduce outbreaks and the risk for transmission, herpes is treatable, but being cautious about spreading it to partners via skin-to-skin contact during a flare-up is still crucial.
There is no treatment available for HPV, which the CDC estimates affected 43 million people in the U.S. in 2018, but your body usually clears the infection on its own within two years. Treatments may be required to manage associated genital warts or cell changes in the cervix. Likewise, hepatitis B, which approximately 1.2 million Americans currently have, is often asymptomatic and the body usually processes the virus without treatment within a few months.
For people with access to the necessary health care, HIV is a livable condition, and with medication, patients can reduce the amount of virus in their blood to undetectable levels. However, 1 million people still die from HIV/AIDS each year and it remains one of the world's most fatal infectious diseases.
Unlike the devastating reality of a few decades ago, people with incurable STIs generally live full and healthy lives alongside them.
"Modern medicines are very good at suppressing the viruses and stopping people getting sick, but you just have to be more careful not to partake in sexual activity if the virus has a flare-up, due to the risk of spread increasing," Foster said.
"The reality is anyone who has sex can get infected," said Tricia Johnson, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in self-esteem and sexual issues in Illinois. "If you have recently been diagnosed with an STI, it may feel scary and isolating, but the facts speak volumes: You are not alone."