Myths about sexually transmitted infections

More than 30 different viruses, bacteria and parasites are transmitted through sexual contact.

These pathogens are responsible for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and, according to World Health Organization estimates, approximately 38 million sexually active people aged 15 to 49 in the Americas have an easily curable STI.

If not treated correctly, STIs can cause serious health consequences, including genital damage, pregnancy complications, infertility, or psychosocial effects.

To avoid these problems, the health authorities emphasize the importance of knowing the characteristics of these infections, what are the causes of contagion, their symptoms, forms of prevention and treatments. Here we review the main myths around STIs.

Myth 1: An STI is only transmitted when there are symptoms

TRUE: This is false, since there is a possibility of contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD) from people who are apparently healthy or who do not even know that they have an infection.

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STDs do not always present symptoms, for this reason, specialists prefer the term “sexually transmitted infections” (STIs), instead of diseases. If symptoms do occur, they may include:

  • Blisters or sores in or around the mouth.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Fever.
  • Sores or warts in the genital area.
  • Frequent or painful urination.
  • Anal itching, pain, or bleeding.
  • Itching and redness in the genital area.
  • Abnormal vaginal odour.
  • Unusual discharge from the penis or vagina.

Myth 2: Gay men are the only ones who can get STIs

TRUE: This is another widespread belief, and therefore dangerous. Experts stress that anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, age, or gender, can get an STI.

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Also, if you have an STI and you don’t know it, you are more likely to pass it on. However, by knowing your status, you can ensure that you and your partner/s are taking steps to stay healthy.

In many countries STI testing is free, easy and confidential, and some can even be done in the comfort of one’s own home.

Myth 3: STIs can be prevented by ejaculating outside the vagina

TRUE: Ejaculation outside the vagina, or coitus interruptus, consists of removing the penis from the vagina before ejaculation. Although it is often used to prevent pregnancy, experts point out that it is not an effective contraceptive method. It is also not effective in preventing STIs, such as HIV, herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, or chlamydia.

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Myth 4: STIs are only spread through penetrative sex

TRUE: It is often believed that an STI can only occur through penetrative sex, but this is not true. They can also be due to oral sex, genital contact, or sharing sex toys. In addition, exposure to blood containing the infectious pathogen, for example by sharing needles, can also lead to an STI.

Myth 5: STIs can be caught from a toilet seat

TRUE: STIs are spread through unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex, and through genital contact and sharing of sex toys. The viruses and bacteria that cause them cannot survive for long outside the human body, so they tend to die if they are on external surfaces, such as toilet seats.

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Myth 6: Taking the contraceptive pill prevents STIs

TRUE: The birth control pill, as well as the patch, ring, or intrauterine device (IUD), only work to prevent pregnancy. To avoid STIs, the only way to protect yourself is through sexual abstinence or using a condom.

Myth 7: Using a double condom offers more protection against STIs

TRUE: Because the condom is the main method of protection against STIs, it is often believed that using two condoms will give twice the protection. However, this does not work like that, on the contrary, using two or more condoms when having sex increases the probability that they will break, due to the greater amount of friction they must endure.

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Myth 8: There are no treatments for STIs

TRUE: This is not true. Eight pathogens make up the vast majority of STIs. Of these, four are curable, the bacterial infections syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia, and the parasitic infection trichomoniasis.

The remaining four, viral, cannot yet be cured: hepatitis B, herpes simplex virus (HSV), HIV, and human papillomavirus (HPV). However, the use of medication can help your symptoms and reduce your risk of spreading the infection. Even HPV infections are often cleared by the body naturally.

Myth 9: STIs cannot be prevented

TRUE: Experts agree that the only way to prevent STIs is through sexual abstinence or relationships exclusively between two uninfected people. However, there are other variables that can help, such as: getting vaccinated (for example, against hepatitis B or HPV), using condoms and mouth guards, and getting routine exams.

Sources consulted: US National Library of Medicine, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Mayo Clinic, World Health Organization (WHO), Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).

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