What’s Up Down There?
Have you ever wondered if you are truly protected from contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) by using condoms and other barrier methods? Read on to see how the most common infections are transmitted, and if your current knowledge is really accurate.
The HIV virus is transmitted by unprotected sexual contact with an infected person, exposure to infected blood or body fluids. Although anal intercourse remains the sexual practice at highest risk of transmitting the HIV virus, transmission can occur with vaginal intercourse as well. The highest risk of transmission is with IV drug use. HIV testing is recommended on a regular basis. The safest partner is one who is in a monogamous relationship and has tested negative for HIV and has not participated in any unsafe sex practices within the last 6 months prior to testing or at any time since the negative test. Keep in mind that one negative test may not mean that you or your partner have not contracted the HIV virus.
The human papilloma virus (HPV) is transmitted by skin to skin contact. Condoms can’t fully protect you from this virus since skin on the thighs and inner legs or other areas that come in contact with your partner during intercourse can be the source of transmission. During oral intercourse with an infected partner, one can get HPV lesions in the oral cavity. This is less likely, but still possible. There are thin films of latex that can be used during oral intercourse called “dental dams” that help protect you from exposure, but nothing is 100% effective.
HPV is the virus that can cause cervical cancer in women. Thatís why the Pap smear is so important to screen women for early signs of cervical cell changes. This is what prevents cervical cancer from going undetected. HPV has certain strains that make a person at higher risk for cervical cancer than others. Some strains of the virus can cause external genital warts that you can see, and others are not visible even though you have been exposed. Though rare, HPV has been known to cause penile cancer in men.
The herpes simplex virus (HSV) is also transmitted by skin to skin contact, just like HPV. Condoms do not cover all areas of skin that can be affected and come in contact with. In the past, it was believed that Herpes simplex I was a typical cold sore found on the mouth, while type II was believed to be found in the genital region. This is no longer the case and type I has been found genitally and type II in the oral region from oral intercourse. Type II generally has more severe symptoms than type I.
There currently is no cure for HSV, but there is medication that can be taken for outbreaks and even suppressive therapy for those with recurrent outbreaks. Itís important to start the medication within 24-48 hours of an outbreak in order for it to be most effective. Dental dams can provide some protection against transmission, but again, they are not 100% effective.
Gonorrhea is transmitted by exposure to vaginal secretions and semen. Condoms can be effective in protecting you from this infection if used correctly. Condoms do break, leak and fall off which exposes you to secretions that may be infected. But remember, condoms are not 100% effective even with perfect use. Know your partners and get tested regularly. You can also get gonorrhea of the throat with oral intercourse.
Chlamydia is also transmitted by exposure to vaginal secretions and semen. Condoms are only 90% effective in protecting you from this infection. 80% of women and 10% of men have no symptoms at all. Both Chlamydia and Gonorrhea can cause sterility if left untreated, so again, get tested regularly.
Syphilis is spread from person to person during physical contact during intercourse by an organism called a spirochete entering through minor skin or mucosal lesions. The risk of developing Syphilis after unprotected intercourse with an infected individual is between 30-50%. It can also be transmitted through blood. The first symptoms show up 1 to 12 days after exposure as a non-painful skin sore called a chancre (shank-er). Most people shrug it off when it goes away and never get tested or have it evaluated. This is very detrimental because undetected syphilis can progress into a second and third stage and cause severe brain, spinal cord and heart problems. Syphilis is treatable, but must be found through blood testing. It is not very common in this area, but has been on the rise in the USA and other countries.
Trich is also transmitted through exposure to vaginal secretions and semen. It is a protozoal flagellate that infects the lower genitourinary tract in men and women causing a frothy, malodorous yellow-green discharge. It is treatable with antibiotics and you can decrease your potential of infection by using condoms. But remember, condoms are never 100% effective.
The only way to prevent the above infections 100% is not to participate in intercourse: vaginal, anal or oral. If you are going to be sexually active, be safe, use multiple barriers. Condoms, dental dams, and spermicides will increase your chances of preventing transmission of the above infections but they are not risk-free.
If you feel you are at risk for transmitting one of the above infections, or that you might have one and need treatment, contact the Health Service for testing and evaluation at 206-6676.
Jill Stoops APN/CNP
UIS Campus Health Service