For many of us, it was an experience burned forever in our brains. The level of awkwardness and unwarranted embarrassment may have varied based on the grade level you were in at the time. Sex ed. Oh, the blushing faces and racing hearts during sex ed.
For some, it was simply an introduction to sex as part of a whole semester of health class. For the lucky ones, it was a whole semester talking about sexual health and all that it entails – including Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).
What we all have in common and I think most of us can admit is we didn’t learn everything we need to know.
Whether it was because we were sitting next to the guy we were crushing on at the time, the topic was just too “embarrassing,” or the content of coursework was too brief, there is plenty more to learn. Trust me. So let’s have a talk about it, shall we?
First of all, it’s important to clarify that yes, diseases and infections are different but they are also used interchangeably. Let’s keep it simple and use them interchangeably.
What are the most common STDs?
Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), chlamydia, genital herpes, genital warts, and gonorrhea are considered to be among the most common STDs.
The American Sexual Health Association reports that “one in two sexually active persons will contract an STI by age 25.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that nearly 20 million new STIs occur every year in this country, half of those among young people aged 15–24.”
That is why we need to have this conversation.
Are genital warts the same as HPV?
HPV is considered by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention to be the most common STI, as almost 79 million Americans are infected with HPV. More than 80 percent of people will have HPV at some point in their lives, according to the ASHA.
There are more than 150 different types of HPV, about one third of which can lead to the development of genital warts. To be clear, they are two different issues that are often confused as the same, but it is HPV that can lead to further issues like warts, or the development of cervical cancer.
True to their name, genital warts appear as a small bump or group of bumps in the genital area. Sizes vary, but if you need a visual, think cauliflower. Enough said.
One of the most important things to keep in mind about HPV is many who have it don’t know it, as there may be no symptoms. However, that doesn’t stop them from sharing it with sexual partners, or even through skin-to-skin contact.
What’s the difference between genital warts and genital herpes?
Different viruses are at play with genital warts and genital herpes. Unlike genital warts, genital herpes is not associated with HPV.
Herpes is an STD, typically known for being either oral herpes or genital herpes. Oral herpes can cause cold sores and fever blisters on or around the mouth, whereas with genital herpes the similar sores will occur.
Both viruses can cause either oral or genital herpes, which is why it’s definitely worth it to hold off kissing your boo when he’s got a cold sore. (Sorry, ladies!)
Do I have chlamydia?
Unlike HPV, which can go relatively unnoticed, there are any number of symptoms to watch for with chlamydia, many of which can be confused for other conditions.
Pain or burning while peeing or during sex, pain in your lower belly, abnormal yellow, possibly strong smelling vaginal discharge, and bleeding between periods, to name a few.
You never want to ignore symptoms like these, as chlamydia can cause serious, permanent damage to your reproductive system, including issues with fertility.
Chlamydia is spread by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has chlamydia.
How is gonorrhea different from chlamydia?
Gonorrhea is very common, particularly in people ages 15 to 24. Also known as “the clap,” gonorrhea can be concurrent with chlamydia – both are bacteria, but they are not the same strain.
Where vaginal discharge from chlamydia is more yellow in color, those with gonorrhea experience watery, creamy, or slightly green vaginal discharge.
There also may be pain while peeing, more frequent bathroom visits, heavier periods or spotting, pain during intercourse, and possibly even a sore throat and fever.
How can I reduce my risk of getting STDs?
Excellent question. I’m going to give it to you straight – the only way to avoid getting STDs entirely is to not have vaginal, anal, or oral sex. But for many, that is simply not realistic.
The good news is there are things you can do to protect yourself, including using latex condoms with your partner and having an honest conversation about sexual history with both your partner and your Obstetrician-Gynecologist. Let me say it once more for the ladies in the back – having open, honest conversations with your OB-GYN is everything when it comes to STDs. There is no need to have flashbacks to sex ed when it was too embarrassing to be talking about sex or STDs in a room full of peers who were just as anxious as you anyway.
In addition to having these conversations, getting screened regularly is key. Ask your doctor, based on your sexual history, what tests or screenings you should have, as well as how frequently they should occur.
As always, I’m here if you have questions or want to work through anything. I’m here to take the stigma out of these kinds of topics and turn it into knowledge that helps my community stay safe and healthy.
And I’ll be a lot more candid with you than your health teacher, I promise.