Hearts, flowers and good health

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, this is a good time to make sure that hearts and flowers are the only “gifts” you give to your sexual partner(s) on this annual lover’s holiday. Sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, if gone undetected and/or left untreated, can be the unwanted gift that keeps on giving.

An STI (also referred to as an STD, or sexually transmitted disease) is any disease or infection passed from one person to another through sexual contact, such as vaginal, oral or anal sex. A few types of STDs, such as scabies and crabs, can be passed through close (skin-to-skin) contact or even prolonged exposure to infested bed linens, but for the most part, these types of infections are transmitted through sexual contact. Among some of the most common STDs are human papilloma virus (HPV), chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes, viral hepatitis, human immunodeficiency virus and syphilis.

There are too many different types of infections, each with their own symptoms, to go into in any depth here. Rashes, blisters, itching and redness in the genital areas can often be a sign of an infection but, depending on the particular disease, may appear early on and then go away, even though the infection itself has not. In fact, oftentimes no obvious symptoms develop, and many people who contract STDs are unaware that they, or their partners, are at risk.

Lesbians in particular may be more at risk for having an STI go undetected. The reason for this can be traced to the way they access their healthcare. For many women, healthcare revolves around the need for contraception. Women frequently get their primary care through OB/GYNs or similar practitioners, who provide regular health-screening exams in addition to gynecological services. But for those women who don’t need contraception because of their sexual orientation, they may be less likely to receive recommended preventative care.

Lesbians may also face other barriers accessing appropriate healthcare. For instance, they may not feel comfortable disclosing their sexuality to their doctors for fear of being judged.

Many lesbians consider themselves to be at low risk for sexually transmitted infections. But a higher number of female partners has been associated with increased risk of bacterial vaginosis (BV), herpes and HPV. Because they may view sex between women as a low-risk activity, many women do not practice safer sex.

While the idea of lesbian safer sex may be news to some, there are ways to improve most, if not all, sexual activity between women. The mechanics of many safer-sex acts between women are the same as those for other types of couples, including using barriers such as dental dams for oral-vaginal and oral-anal contact, using latex gloves when inserting fingers and using condoms on insertable sex toys, being sure to change condoms for each partner.

Sexually active lesbians should be tested annually. This Valentine’s Day, give your sexual partner(s) — and yourself — the best gift imaginable: the gift of good health.

Robert Winn is medical director at Mazzoni Center, the region’s only LGBT-specific health center. Mazzoni Center offers confidential rapid HIV testing and STD screening. Make an appointment and get tested.