There are an estimated 20 million new sexually transmitted diseases and infections every year and half of all Americans will contract a sexually transmitted disease (STD) during their lifetime. Getting tested for STDs is essential if you are going to engage in unprotected sexual activity. Anyone who engages in unprotected sex runs the risk for exposure to sexually transmitted diseases. So what happens if do you contract an STD?
Abstinence, outercourse and heavy petting
While abstinence is the only 100% effective way to eliminate the risk of contracting an STD, it is not always easy to practice in reality. Condoms, female condoms and dental dams are extremely effective, but will not help once you have been exposed to a disease.
The popularity of “outercourse,” i.e. oral sex and “heavy petting” or “fingering” as a way of engaging in sexual activity while avoiding intercourse has skyrocketed, due in part to the inaccurate and dangerous misconception that these are risk-free activities.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a survey of sexually active 15- to 17- year- olds conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 26% of the teens incorrectly believed that HIV cannot be transmitted through unprotected oral sex and an additional 15% simply did not know whether it was possible.
HIV and oral sex
These findings mean that almost half of the surveyed teens did not have the knowledge that, while the chances of contracting HIV from receiving unprotected oral sex from an infected partner are significantly lower than with vaginal or anal sex because the disease is not transmitted through saliva, it is still possible to transmit the disease by performing oral sex on an infected partner whose genital secretions would carry the disease. Also, though HIV may be more difficult to transmit orally, there are many STDs that are easily spread through unprotected oral sex. There is no better argument for why you should get tested for STDs.
Herpes is the most commonly orally transmitted STD, with simplex 1 (oral herpes) causing cold sores and blisters, and simplex 2 (genital herpes) resulting in genital warts. The dangers of unprotected oral sex do not end with the warts and blisters of herpes, though.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) contracted from unprotected oral sex is the single most common cause of throat cancer. The disease is also a known cause of cervical cancer, as well as genital warts and growths. It often goes unnoticed because symptoms are not always apparent, which makes it even easier to unknowingly spread.
Syphilis can only be spread when sores are present, but because sores can appear on the mouth and lips, it is very easy to pass on orally. Chlamydia is the most commonly reported STD, mainly because HPV, herpes, and other infections do not have to be reported by doctors. It is easily cured, but often goes unreported and can be spread regardless of whether the man ejaculates, ranking it very high on the list of orally transmitted diseases.
Hepatitis B, which can be spread merely by exposure to infected saliva, and gonorrhea are also highly communicable through oral sex.
HIV and homosexuality
Another common misconception is that anal sex is the only way to transmit HIV and, consequently, that the disease is mainly a problem within the homosexual community. HIV is spread when infected blood, semen or vaginal fluid makes it to the bloodstream, so the disease can affect anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, or age. HIV is actually most often spread through vaginal intercourse though anal sex does present a big risk because the rectal lining is easily torn, which means infected blood and sexual fluids pass between partners with ease.
Hepatitis A can result from exposure to the tiniest particles of infected fecal matter, so the disease carries a very high risk of transferring through anal sexual activity, whether it is orally, through intercourse, or the use of fingers.
Syphilis, gonorrhea, herpes, chlamydia, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C can all be spread through engaging in anal sex. In the case of syphilis and herpes, sores and/or warts form on the genitals and infected areas and exposure to those sores can spread the disease, so they can be contracted even without intercourse.
It is a fact that all forms of sexual contact- oral, vaginal, and anal- can pass disease from partner to partner, from herpes, gonorrhea to HIV. Having this knowledge can be very empowering and in some cases, life-saving.
Right time to test for STDs
While frequent testing, abstinence during periods of infection, and the use of proper protection are the best ways to avoid spreading sexually transmitted diseases, what happens once you’re infected?
The first and most important step is being tested in a timely manner, but how do you know the right time to get tested? The answer is that it depends on the disease. Each disease has its own incubation period and depending on the tests that exist for the disease, it may take anywhere from a few days to weeks for test results to be conclusive.
Not all STD tests are the same. Different diseases require different tests because some are viral, some are bacterial, and some can even be fungal or parasitic. Some tests, particularly blood tests, are looking for high levels of antibodies, the body’s natural defense against infection.
For example, HIV is often diagnosed by looking for the high level of antibodies that is produced naturally by the body to fight the infection when it is present. This testing method takes longer because the body has to produce those antibodies, which only happens after the infection has spread. Tests that look for specific pathogens, such as the HIV RNA test, are effective in a shorter time frame because the actual disease is measured. The same can be true for urine tests.
For some diseases, especially those that produce sores or warts, a pelvic exam can be the first step in diagnosing a sexually transmitted disease. Herpes, HIV, syphilis, and hepatitis A, B, and C can all be diagnosed using a blood test, while gonorrhea and chlamydia are commonly diagnosed using a urine test.
With an HIV early detection test, the disease can be detected within a week of exposure. Chlamydia and gonorrhea are also possibly detected within a week, though they are more likely to be diagnosed within two weeks, and almost certain to be diagnosed in the three to four week time frame.
Syphilis has a similar range of anywhere from two weeks to a month after exposure for likely detection. Herpes and the various forms of hepatitis become most easily detected around the one month mark from the time of exposure, along with HIV if the doctor is administering an antibody test. Within two months, most STDs are at their highest potential for detection.
Importance of STD testing
The best defense against STDs is a good offense, as the old saying goes. Take control of your sexual health by arming yourself with knowledge. Protect yourself, avoid risky behavior, and get tested for STDs often. Preventing the transmission of diseases is the only way to decrease the number of infected people who can potentially spread diseases.