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Tuesday, June 2, 2020

STIgmatized: Debunking myths about sexually transmitted infections

By Julia Furukawa

For some, it was “the birds and the bees” talk from the parents. For others, it was teachers preaching an abstinence-only agenda or sitting around with friends trying to put a condom on a banana. Regardless of what your informal sexual education looked like, it likely did not prepare you for the reality of sexually transmitted infections.

Sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, are extremely stigmatized and misinformation abounds, with many college students feeling immune.

However, one in two sexually-active people will contract an STI by the time they reach 25, according to the American Sexual Health Association.

Despite this prevalence in STIs among young people, the association found only 12 percent of sexually-active persons under the age of 25 have been tested for them. It attributes this to stigmatization of STIs as well as lack of up-to-date education.

Senior Laurel Puffert is a peer health educator through Prevention and Wellness Services and a Western’s Empowerment and Violence Education volunteer. She works with fellow Western students to educate them about safe sex and healthy relationships.

Prevention and Wellness Services has peer sexual health educators who conduct one-on-one information sessions with students who have turned to the Student Health Center for STI checks and birth control. These one-on-ones can be made by appointment and are intended to explain all possible options.

Half of sexually-active people will contract an STI by the time they reach 25.

American Sexual Health Association

These meetings educate students and dispel prevalent myths about STIs and sexual health. Puffert said having these conversations in a mature college setting normalizes the issues and helps to take away some of the taboo, particularly around STIs.

Puffert and her fellow educators are working to get rid of this stigma and erase the pain of middle school sex education classes past.

“I feel like the only time I had sex ed was in the awkwardness of middle and high school,” Puffert said.

Puffert said that the conversations the peer educators conduct provide an outlet to ease that discomfort.

Much of this work is overseen by Tracy Dahlstedt-Rienstra, who is on the Prevention and Wellness Services staff and leads the peer sexual health educators.

Dahlstedt-Rienstra previously worked for Planned Parenthood and her experience has helped to bring Prevention and Wellness Services up to speed with current need, Puffert said.

“She has brought in fresh ideas because Planned Parenthood is ahead of where our campus services are,” Puffert said. “It’s cheaper and more accessible too.”

The closest Planned Parenthood to Western is located on the corner of Ellis and York Streets in the York Neighborhood. It provides more comprehensive services, including birth control, STI testing, pregnancy testing, hormone services, abortions and emergency contraception.

So now that you know what resources you have in Bellingham, how do you know what to look for?

Herpes

There are two kinds of herpes: oral and genital. Both kinds can be caused by the herpes simplex virus 1 and herpes simplex virus 2. Both strains of the virus can cause sores or blisters on the face, mouth, vagina, penis, anus, scrotum, cervix, vulva, butt, inner-thighs and sometimes the eyes.

How can you get it?

Kissing, oral, vaginal or anal sex, or skin-to-skin contact.

Despite common misconceptions…

Herpes can be spread to a partner even if a sore is not present or visible.

Herpes simplex 1 and 2 both cause oral and genital herpes, the only difference is the area where contact was made.

You do not have to have sex to get herpes. It can be passed from parents or friends by sharing food or drinks. Because of this, the majority of people with herpes contracted it in childhood.

Herpes is the most common STI, and many college-age people have it.

One-in-two sexually-active people under the age of 25 have oral herpes, and one-in-eight have genital herpes, according to the American Sexual Health Association.

What are the potential symptoms?

Painful sores in areas where contact has been made.

Some do not experience symptoms at all.

Are there long term consequences?

Herpes simplex 1 and 2 never leave your system, so you could experience periodic outbreaks for your entire life.

It is essentially a minor skin condition, despite being stigmatized, and can be managed.

How can I prevent oral and/or genital herpes?

Condoms, female condoms or dental dams

Medications that lower your viral count, which can prevent spread and/or outbreaks

Chlamydia

Chlamydia can be one of the sneakiest STIs because many people do not show symptoms for several weeks, or at all. It is the most common and treatable STI.

How can you get it?

Oral, vaginal or anal sex

Despite common misconceptions…

Chlamydia can also infect your throat from oral sex, not just your genitals.

What are the potential symptoms?

Pain during sex or urination

Vaginal discharge with abnormal smell or color

Painful or swollen testicles

If spread to the eyes, it can cause redness and irritation

Are there long-term consequences?

If left untreated, chlamydia can cause infertility, or even blindness

How can I prevent chlamydia?

Condoms, dental dams or female condoms

Gonorrhea 

Similarly to chlamydia, gonorrhea does not always have symptoms, but is also treatable with a course of antibiotics.

How can I get it?

Vaginal, anal or oral sex

Despite common misconceptions…

Despite the name, gonorrhea is in no way related to diarrhea

You cannot contract gonorrhea through casual contact, ie: sharing food,  drinks or kissing

People with penises are more likely to show symptoms

What are the potential symptoms?

Pain during sex or urination

Vaginal discharge with abnormal smell or color

Painful or swollen testicles

Are there long-term consequences?

If a woman has gonorrhea while pregnant, she can pass it on to her child

How can I prevent gonorrhea?

Condoms, dental dams or female condoms

Genital Warts

Genital warts are sores that can show up around the vagina or anus. They are a form of human papillomavirus.

How can I get it?

Skin-to-skin contact with a sore. You don’t need to have penetrative sex to contract genital warts.

Despite common misconceptions…

While there are types of HPV that can cause cancer, the type that causes genital warts is not the same one.

Unlike other STIs that can only be passed through vaginal discharge, semen, pre-cum, saliva or blood, you can contract genital warts just from skin-to-skin contact with one.

Not all lumps and bumps in your nether-regions are genital warts, some are just bumps.

If a lump is painful, inflamed or is producing a secretion, a doctor should be consulted.

Sometimes it can take a long time for genital warts to show up, so contracting them from a partner does not definitively mean they are cheating.

You cannot take antibiotics for genital warts because they are caused by a virus, not bacteria.

Genital warts can be treated to reduce size and discomfort, but they cannot be cured.

What are the symptoms?

Planned Parenthood described genital warts as: “skin-colored or whitish bumps that show up on your vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, scrotum or anus.”

What are the long-term consequences?

Genital warts can be managed but cannot be cured.

Genital warts can be spread to an unborn child if a mother has it while pregnant.

How can I prevent genital warts?

Condoms, dental dams or female condoms

Get the HPV vaccine

So, what should I do if I think I have an STI?:

Make an appointment at the Student Health Center, Planned Parenthood, at a walk-in clinic or with your primary care doctor.

Take a test.

  • If it’s positive for chlamydia and gonorrhea: Take a short course of antibiotics.
  • If it’s positive for herpes: Talk with your provider about prescription pills to lower your viral count or topical treatments to shorten healing time.
  • If it’s positive for genital warts: Talk with your provider about potential treatment options, which include freezing warts off, burning warts off with an electrical current or having the warts surgically removed.

Inform your previous and current partners. You may also need to inform future partners, if the STI cannot be completely treated.

 

Relax. STIs have a reputation of being scary, but they are over-stigmatized. In reality, they are fairly common and usually manageable or treatable.

Debunking Common Misconceptions About STIs:

Myth: Only people who have a lot of sex or a lot of partners get STIs.

Nope. We’re all susceptible.

Myth: Taking birth control will stop you from getting an STI.

Nope. While birth control methods like “the pill,” or an IUD can be very effective in preventing pregnancy, they do nothing for STI protection. Condoms can protect against STIs.

Myth: You can get an STI from sitting on a public toilet seat.

Nope. Almost all STIs can only be spread by contact with blood, semen or vaginal discharge.

Myth: If you have sex in a hot tub, the chlorine will kill the STI.

Nope. They are resilient.

Myth: Using two condoms will give you more protection.

Nope. The friction caused by two condoms will actually make them break more easily.

 

Unless otherwise noted, information on STIs are from Planned Parenthood. More information can be found on their website.

Illustrations by Julia Furukawa. 

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