Being in lockdown understandably put a damper on many single people’s love life. But now that many individuals are vaccinated, society is reopening, and life is getting back to normal, many singletons are dating once again.
However, with hearts and flowers, should come safe sex practices. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention estimates that one in every five people in the U.S. have a sexually transmitted infection (STI). There are many different types of STIs, and some are more common than others, including bacterial infections like chlamydia and gonorrhea, viruses such as HPV, genital herpes, and hepatitis A, B, and C, as well as insects and germs including pubic lice and scabies.
“We saw fewer STIs throughout the pandemic because people were staying apart,” explains Susan Pitman, MD, FACOG, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Summit Health. “However, now that people are seeing each other again, we are beginning to see more cases.”
Here are seven things Dr. Pitman says to keep in mind if you are single and beginning to mingle again.
The best way to prevent STIs is still to use condoms. Birth control methods like the pill or an IUD (intrauterine device) can protect against pregnancy but not STIs. If you are having oral, anal, or genital sex without a condom, you are putting yourself at serious risk. Individuals who have multiple sexual partners and men who have sex with men are also more likely to develop an STI.
“People think nothing can happen to them, but it can,” says Dr. Pitman. “When I see young people, I tell them to imagine themself sitting in the middle of two mirrors and seeing an infinite image of themselves. If you have multiple partners, you have also been with all those reflections. When you have sex with someone, you are also exposed to anyone your partner has been with before you.”
Between 50 and 75 percent of STIs do not cause any symptoms. But if you feel anything abnormal, call your doctor right away. Some of the most common signs of STIs include discharge, irritation, itching, or burning in the genital or anal area.
“If it is not normal for you, then it is not normal,” describes Dr. Pitman. “A lot of people will talk to their friends before they pick up the phone and call their doctor. I would always rather err on the side of caution by examining and testing a patient than not hear from them at all.”
Most STIs can be easily treated. Bacterial infections and insects and germs generally clear up with antibiotics and other medications, while viruses can be managed with antiviral treatments or prevented altogether with vaccination. However, when certain infections like chlamydia fly under the radar for a long period of time, it can cause serious problems like infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease, and pregnancy or newborn complications.
“Chlamydia can be silently very damaging and affect the fallopian tubes and other structures. Unfortunately, it is the most prevalent infection I see today,” describes Dr. Pitman. “Since it can cause these problems, I usually test everyone I see between the ages of 15 and 25 for both chlamydia and gonorrhea.”
Also, some viral infections such as HPV and herpes will remain in the body for life, so prevention is truly the best medicine.
How often you should be screened for STIs will depend on your relationship status. Someone who is in a long-term, committed relationship or is not sexually active does not need to be tested. If you are having sex with multiple partners, it is important to be checked as often as possible.
Dr. Pitman also advises screening before you have sex with a new partner. “The days of free love are over. There are simply too many STIs out there and it is not safe,” she says. “In general, people are being more careful about their choices than they were twenty years ago, but there is still a lot of prevention that needs to be done. Before you decide to have sex you should be able to talk with your partner about both birth control and STIs. Make sure each of you has a clean test.”
Not only do vaccines prevent infections, they can also prevent downstream effects such as cancer and organ failure.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common STI. It is estimated that 80 percent of the population has been exposed to HPV at some point in their life. Research has found that HPV can cause several types of cancer in both men and women. Thankfully, there is a vaccine that can protect against HPV. The latest version of Gardasil, which is approved for both men and women, ages 9 to 45, protects against nine different HPV risk types. And the HPV vaccine has been proven to reduce the risk of oral, throat, genital, and anal cancers.
“The HPV vaccine is a no-brainer for young men and women who are single. For teenagers, the idea is to have the shot about six months to a year before they become sexually active. If you are in a mutually exclusive relationship, I do not feel as strongly that you need to get it,” explains Dr. Pitman.
Hepatitis B is another sexually transmitted virus that can be prevented with vaccination. Nowadays all children receive the Hepatitis B vaccine as part of their routine vaccinations but if you are older than 30 you should ask your provider if you need to get the vaccine.
When it comes to STIs one of the largest barriers to care is simply embarrassment. Dr. Pitman reminds her patients that anything they say is privileged information and stays between the two of them. Gynecologists, she says, also play a critical role as counselors. At the annual visit, it is important to discuss both relationship status and sexual activity with their patients and advise them on safe sex practices.
“The doctor’s office is a safe space and both men and women should use it to talk about any questions or concerns that they may have,” she says. “There is probably not another specialty provider who most women are going to talk to about sex. That is why gynecologists need to ask the right questions. If the appropriate questions are not asked, they are not going to be able to offer appropriate care.”
When you have an STI, such as herpes or HPV, that stays with you forever, it can be difficult. But it is important to be honest with any potential partner.
Dr. Pitman says it does not need to be your opening line on your first date, but it needs to be discussed before too much time has passed and you engage in any sexual activity. Even though an infection like herpes simplex virus type 1 (oral) has a low recurrence of only 4 percent, it stays in your system and can be passed onto a partner if you are not careful. It can also be transmitted to the genitals, although less likely.
“Having STIs like herpes may mean you have to take a little bit of a risk with your heart,” says Dr. Pitman. “When you disclose a history of something like herpes it can be a dealbreaker or it may be something your partner is willing to accept and work with. With safe sex practices, the risk of transmission can be greatly reduced.”