Still think STDs are something that can't happen to someone like you? Here's a shocking reality check: Nearly 20 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases occur every year in the U.S., according to a recent report by the CDC. That's over 54,000 new cases per day!
And unfortunately, that number has been increasing in recent years, according to Lynn Barclay, President and CEO of the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA). It could be rising for a number of reasons, including increasing population, better testing methods, and an increased emphasis on getting tested. Yet this scary stat could also mean that we're not doing enough to stay informed, protected, and treated.
Here, three things you need to do right away to protect your sexual health:
Know What You Should Be Tested For
Unfortunately, there are no standard guidelines for how often you should be tested for STDs. That's because your testing needs depend on several factors—like your age, sexual activity, lifestyle choices, relationship status, and history of STDs, says Barclay. That's why it's crucial to do your research and find out what you need to be tested for before you head to your doctor's office.
In the most basic sense, you should be tested for STDs any time you've had unprotected sex, before you have sex with a new partner, or if you're experiencing any symptoms, says Barclay. However, when you get tested and for what infections will vary from person to person. For instance, if you've recently had unprotected sex or multiple sexual partners, you may need to be tested for chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and HIV. If you are experiencing any irregular symptoms, ask your provider if you should be tested for genital herpes, trichomoniasis, and HPV (genital warts).
The fact is that your doctor is busy and chances are she doesn't know the details of your sex life, so it's your responsibility to know when to be tested for STDs and which infections you should test for.
Ask Your Doctor for the Right Tests
You might want to sit down for this one: When you ask your provider to "test you for everything," chances are, you're not getting tested for everything. Most providers only test for chlamydia, gonorrhea, and sometimes syphilis and HIV during a routine test, according to Dr. Edward Hook III, director of the division of infectious diseases at University of Alabama. Most people aren't tested for herpes or trichomoniasis unless they ask for it or they present with symptoms, says Barclay. And you'll typically only receive an HPV test if you have an abnormal Pap smear (find out how this process may change based on new Pap smear guidelines.)
The bottom line: Don't assume that you're being tested for everything under the sun when you head to the gyno for a Pap smear—even if you ask for "everything." Your doctor may know you're sexually active and order a few tests, but they don't know that you had unprotected sex once or twice in the last year, that the condom broke last month, or that you had a weird rash a while ago that eventually went away. Make sure to ask your doctor which tests you're receiving and request additional ones if you believe you're at risk, says Barclay.
Use Protection Consistently and Correctly
Here's the thing about condoms: They are the second best defense against STDs after abstinence. Still, most people don't use them as much as they should. "We have a real problem as a nation in that we go into a new relationship using condoms and then discontinue use," says Barclay. In fact, one recent study found that many women who start using hormonal contraception stop using condoms, and even when they get off the pill, some women don't return to regular condom use.
Even if you're in a committed, monogamous relationship, Barclay suggests using condoms consistently for the first six months, then both getting retested, as some diseases don't show up right away. That said, you'll also have to trust that your partner is being completely monogamous and honest about their sexual health. For more information, check out the new website, Condomology, from ASHA and Trojan.