April is STD Awareness Month, an annual observance to encourage open discussion of sexual health and routine STD screening for those who may be at risk. STDs are more common than most people think. Every year, there are more than 19 million new cases of STDs in the U.S. By age 25, an estimated one in two sexually active young people will get one.
The LGBT community has led the way with regard to awareness and routine screening for HIV, yet how many of us are aware of the risks and symptoms of treatable, bacteria-caused STDs such as gonorrhea, Chlamydia or syphilis? How many of us are routinely screened for these infections? What can we do to protect ourselves and our partners?
Here are 10 tips and guidelines for STD Awareness Month:
1. We’ve been told time and again that condoms are our best weapon against most STDs. And it’s true. Most people immediately think of the male condom, which is a great choice. As remarkable as they are — in all their varieties of colors, shapes, sizes and sensitivities — we should not forget the increasingly popular female condom. (Those of you who identify as male, please don’t get turned off by the name.) These very convenient pouches of polyurethane can be used in the anus as well as the vagina. Not only that, but they can be inserted hours before a sexual encounter, thereby eliminating the sometimes-inconvenient pause needed to put on a condom when things start getting heated: very handy. It should be mentioned that neither type of condom is 100-percent successful at stopping the transmission of Human Papillomavirus (HPV)/genital warts and herpes. These two viruses only need skin-to-skin contact to be passed to a partner, and the condom — male or female — won’t always cover all areas of a breakout.
2. If you are sexually active, you should get screened for STDs every three months. Some think that if they don’t seem to be experiencing any symptoms, they are STD-free. But even though your parts aren’t dripping, you have no unusual skin eruptions and things aren’t burning or itching, you may still be infected. Some STDs are silent at first — some for years — and it’s important to keep in mind that many STDs are relatively easy to treat when diagnosed early. So do yourself and your sexual partners a favor and screen regularly. It’s the only true way to know if you are infected.
3. If you discover you have an STD, seek treatment as soon as possible and notify your partners. Partner notification can be difficult, but there are some great services available to help you with this process, such as Partner Services and inspot.org, which allow you to contact your partners anonymously. Mazzoni Center and other HIV/STD service providers can provide you with more information on these services.
4. When it comes to gonorrhea and Chlamydia, you need to have a screening done on all of the body parts you used during a sexual act. For example, if you have a penis and gave and received oral sex, you would need to have a sample taken from your both your penis and your throat. If you have a vagina and had penetrative sex with someone with a penis in your vagina and anus, you would need to have your vagina and anus screened; your partner with a penis would need to give a sample from their penis (and so on).
5. You need to be open and honest with the medical provider who does your STD screening. If you aren’t receiving care at a place like Mazzoni Center that specializes in sexually transmitted infections, you may not be asked the proper questions to find out what body part needs to be screened. Sad to say, but some doctors don’t even know what questions to ask, let alone what body parts to screen. Don’t be afraid to educate your physician on what you do with your body, and suggest they screen the specific body parts that may need it. If this sounds uncomfortable to you, look for a community-based testing site that will not only have knowledgeable, nonjudgmental staff, but will also give you a free and appropriate screening.
6. Reduce your number of sex partners. It’s a very simple way to reduce the chance of contracting or transmitting an STD.
7. Look before you leap when engaging in sexual activity with partners. If you notice a strange discharge, bump, rash or other potential symptom in the genital or anal area of a potential partner, it would be safest to avoid direct contact with those body parts.
8. Certain STDs such as Hepatitis B (HBV) and HPV are caused by viruses. Hepatitis B is the most common cause of liver cancer, and certain strains of HPV cause genital warts. Other strains of HPV are precursors for cervical or anal cancer. Vaccines are available for both Hepatitis B and HPV. Vaccination for these viruses is strongly recommended for sexually active individuals — particularly men who have sex with men.
9. If you drink or use recreational drugs, be aware of what sexual risks you take when under the influence and try to plan accordingly. Having condoms available and ready increases your chances of using them. If your drinking or drug use is out of control, reach out to get help. (Mazzoni Center’s REACH program is a peer-counseling program that specializes in this area: Contact REACH@mazzonicenter.org or 215-563-0663 ext. 245 for more information.)
10. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and find the answers you need! Visit the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s user-friendly website, www.STDphilly.org, where you’ll find lots of helpful sexual-health information specific to different populations, age groups and sexual behaviors. The site also provides times and locations to access free STD screening and treatment.
Mazzoni Center offers free, confidential STD screening services at Washington West Project (1201 Locust St.), as well as at Club Body Center and Sansom Street Gym. We also offer other services like one-on-one Wellness Counseling and group counseling to reduce risk. Visit our website for more info: www.mazzonicenter.org, or take advantage of the walk-in hours listed below.
Washington West Project offers free, confidential STD screening for syphilis (blood draw), gonorrhea (urine sample, pharyngeal swab and/or rectal swab) and Chlamydia (urine sample, pharyngeal swab and/or rectal swab) on Tuesdays (1-5 p.m.), Thursdays (6-9 p.m.), Fridays (2-5 p.m.) and Saturdays (1-4 p.m.). The site also offers free, confidential and anonymous rapid-HIV testing from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 9 a.m.-midnight Fridays and 1-5 p.m. Saturdays. All services are offered on a walk-in basis with no appointment necessary.
Eric Paulukonis is prevention services director at Mazzoni Center, the only LGBT health center in the Philadelphia region. Visit www.mazzonicenter.org for more information.