There are several ways to avoid or reduce your risk of sexually transmitted infections.
Abstain. The most effective way to avoid STIs is to abstain from sex.
Stay with one uninfected partner. Another reliable way of avoiding STIs is to stay in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who isn’t infected.
Wait and verify. Avoid vaginal and anal intercourse with new partners until you have both been tested for STIs. Oral sex is less risky, but use a latex condom or dental dam — a thin, square piece of rubber made with latex or silicone — to prevent direct contact between the oral and genital mucous membranes. Keep in mind that no good screening test exists for genital herpes for either sex, and human papillomavirus (HPV) screening isn’t available for men.
Get vaccinated. Getting vaccinated early, before sexual exposure, is also effective in preventing certain types of STIs. Vaccines are available to prevent human papillomavirus (HPV), hepatitis A and hepatitis B.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the HPV vaccine for girls and boys ages 11 and 12. If not fully vaccinated at ages 11 and 12, the CDC recommends that girls and women through age 26 and boys and men through age 26 receive the vaccine.
The hepatitis B vaccine is usually given to newborns, and the hepatitis A vaccine is recommended for 1-year-olds. Both vaccines are recommended for people who aren’t already immune to these diseases and for those who are at increased risk of infection, such as men who have sex with men and IV drug users.
Use condoms and dental dams consistently and correctly. Use a new latex condom or dental dam for each sex act, whether oral, vaginal or anal. Never use an oil-based lubricant, such as petroleum jelly, with a latex condom or dental dam.
Condoms made from natural membranes are not recommended because they’re not as effective at preventing STIs. Keep in mind that while condoms reduce your risk of exposure to most STIs, they provide a lesser degree of protection for STIs involving exposed genital sores, such as human papillomavirus (HPV) or herpes. Also, nonbarrier forms of contraception, such as oral contraceptives or intrauterine devices, don’t protect against STIs.
Don’t drink alcohol excessively or use drugs. If you’re under the influence, you’re more likely to take sexual risks.
Communicate. Before any serious sexual contact, communicate with your partner about practicing safer sex. Reach an explicit agreement about what activities will and won’t be OK.
Consider male circumcision. There’s evidence that male circumcision can help reduce a man’s risk of acquiring HIV from an infected woman (heterosexual transmission) by as much as 60 percent. Male circumcision may also help prevent transmission of genital HPV and genital herpes.
Consider the drug Truvada. In July 2012, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of the combination drug emtricitabine-tenofovir (Truvada) to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted HIV infection in those who are at high risk. Truvada is also used as an HIV treatment along with other medications.
When used to help prevent HIV infection, Truvada is only appropriate if your doctor is certain you don’t already have HIV infection.
Your doctor should also test for hepatitis B infection. If you don’t have hepatitis B, your doctor may recommend the hepatitis B vaccine if you haven’t had it yet. If you have hepatitis B, your doctor should test your kidney function before prescribing Truvada.
Truvada must be taken daily, exactly as prescribed, and you’ll need follow-up HIV and kidney function testing every few months. Truvada should only be used along with other prevention strategies such as condom use every time you have sex.
Coping and support
It’s traumatic to find out you have an STI. You might be angry if you feel you’ve been betrayed or ashamed if there’s a chance you infected others. At worst, an STI can cause chronic illness and death, even with the best care in the world.
Between those extremes is a host of other potential losses — trust between partners, plans to have children, and the joyful embrace of your sexuality and its expression.
Here’s how you can cope:
Put blame on hold. Don’t jump to the conclusion that your partner has been unfaithful to you. One (or both) of you may have been infected by a past partner.
Be candid with health care workers. Their job is not to judge you, but to stop STIs from spreading. Anything you tell them remains confidential.
Contact your health department. Although they may not have the staff and funds to offer comprehensive services, local health departments maintain STI programs that provide confidential testing, treatment and partner services.
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