STIs (sexually transmitted infections) also sometimes called STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) are incredibly common. Rates have been on the rise in recent years, and have hit an all time high in the US during the pandemic.
One in five Americans has an STI at any given moment, so it’s likely someone close to you (maybe even someone you’ve had sex with) has had one. And since the most common symptom is no symptom at all, it’s possible they didn’t even know.
STIs aren’t a consequence. They’re not an indication that someone is irresponsible or dirty. They’re simply infections that can be, in many cases, cured. But left untreated, they can lead to serious health problems, so it makes sense to get checked out regularly and protect yourself.
How do you get an STI?
Most STIs are transmitted when vaginal* fluid, anal fluid or semen/cum/pre-cum from someone with an STI comes into contact with your vagina*, penis*, anus or mouth. This can happen through penetrative sex, oral sex or even through the use of a shared sex toy. Some STIs, like HIV, are also transmitted when blood from someone with HIV gets into your bloodstream through cuts, open sores or tiny tears. Herpes and HPV are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, particularly genital skin to genital skin—which is why, even though wearing a condom greatly reduces the risk of transmission, it does not protect you completely.
How do I know if I have an STI?
Pay attention to your body and what it might be telling you. Many STIs present as unusual discharge or bumps/sores on your genitals. Get tested regularly (every 3-6 months) and/or between new partners. Never assume that if you have no symptoms, you have no STIs.
If you live in Canada, STI testing is free of charge. If getting to a clinic isn’t an option, there are some at-home testing kits available through companies like Lets Get Checked and programs like Take Me Home, though not all STIs are included, and depending on the test there may be a cost associated.
How can I reduce my risk and protect myself and my partner?
Communication is super important, as is attitude. Come with an open and understanding mindset. Ask your partner(s) about their STI history and if they’ve been tested, and share your status too!
Using a condom can greatly reduce your risk, and protects both you and your partner(s). You can use an internal or external condom for penetrative sex, gloves or a condom when penetrating with your fingers or hands and a dental dam (i.e. a condom cut up the side) for oral sex. There are vaccines to prevent Hepatitis B and some strains of HPV, and medications like PrEP that can greatly reduce the risk of HIV transmission.
What should I do if I have an STI? How do I tell my partner?
STIs are definitely stigmatized and there can be a lot of shame around receiving a diagnosis, but we assure you it’s not the end of the world.
If you find out you have an STI, you should reach out to your current and former partners, so that they too can get tested and protect themselves and others. If you can’t or don’t want to do that, there are services like tellyourpartner.org that will anonymously tell your partner(s) they should get tested.
What if someone I've hooked up with tells me they have an STI?
Take a beat to reflect on how you feel. Try and meet them with understanding and appreciation—disclosure can feel scary, and it’s a demonstration of responsibility and accountability on their part. Get yourself tested and take someone you trust with you if that helps you feel safe. If there is a chance you may have transmitted to any other partners, disclose it to them too.
What if they don't tell me personally, but I hear a rumour that they have one?
We’ve started to see the rise of Call-Out Culture in this space, where social media is leveraged to blame/shame someone who’s transmitted an STI. This is a tough one, but we think unintentional transmission should be forgivable.
Ultimately, we want to create a culture where people feel comfortable disclosing their status. To do that, we have to reduce shame and stigma while also encouraging respect, responsibility and communication.
If you hear a rumour about someone’s status and worry you may have been exposed, the first step is to get yourself tested. Without knowing all the details, it’s hard to judge why someone hasn’t disclosed. Maybe they believe they contracted the STI after you. If there’s one thing Covid has taught us, it’s that tracking transmissions is incredibly complicated. That’s why discussing your status, getting tested before hooking up and using protection are so so important.
What are the types of STIs?
There are three types of STIs. Bacterial STIs like gonorrhea and chlamydia, as well as parasite STIs like scabies or pubic lice (crabs) can be cured with medication. Viral STIs like herpes and HIV can’t be cured yet, but symptoms can be treated. In the case of HIV, correct treatment (resulting in an “undetectable viral load”) can remove the risk of transmitting HIV through sex, while correct treatment of herpes can drastically lower the risk of transmission. Download our STI factsheet, where we’ve compiled an overview of some of the most common STIs—though there is plenty more information out there regarding symptoms, testing and treatment. If you think you have an STI, visit your doctor or a sexual health clinic as soon as possible.
*We know that not everyone uses this terminology for their anatomy. We support your choice of language and have attempted to be thoughtful and inclusive in our content.