The caller to the STD hotline sounded very worried. He had known for a while about his diagnosis of herpes, a sexually transmitted viral infection. But during a recent holiday gathering, he had used the bathroom at a relative’s home, full of family members of all ages. “What if the kids used the bathroom behind me and used the same towel?” he asked. And what about that toilet seat? The caller anxiously asked: “Did I infect someone?”
Fred Wyand, director of communications for the American Sexual Health Association, took that call, one of numerous similar calls he’s fielded over the years about STDs—more typically known now in healthcare circles as STIs, or sexually transmitted infections. He could reassure the caller. “The answer is, no, you didn’t infect anyone,” he told this caller, as he has told countless others. “There’s no documentation of herpes being spread by inanimate objects.”
Wyand reviewed other misconceptions about STIs and helped us put together our just-in-time-for-Valentine’s-month True or False quiz. Go ahead, see how smart you are about your sexual health.
True or False: STI’s mostly occur in younger people.
True – sort of. There’s no magic birthday that deems you immune from STIs. More than half of STIs reported in 2020 occurred in teens and young adults ages 15 to 24, the CDC reports. However, STDs among older adults have been rising steadily. While adults over 55 don’t have the highest rates of STIs, that rate has increased greatly. The population-adjusted rate went from 11.8 per 100,000 to 24.5 per 100,000 from 2014-2019.
True or False: If you have an STI, a symptom will alert you.
False – sort of. “STIs are very often asymptomatic,” Wyand said. People diagnosed with an STI often say, “But I haven’t had a drip, a burning.” He tells them: “Symptoms aren’t a good way to tell. They’re a lousy way to tell.”
A good example is herpes. According to the CDC, most people who have herpes don’t realize it. Some may have mild symptoms that get overlooked or mistaken as a pimple or an ingrown hair. Herpes sores usually appear as blisters on or around the genitals, rectum or mouth.
Likewise, chlamydia infections may go unnoticed. Women infected may notice a burning sensation when peeing or a vaginal discharge; men may report a burning sensation while peeing or a discharge from the penis.
True or False: If you need a test or screening for an STI, your healthcare provider will address it.
False. Actually, he or she might not bring it up at all. While healthcare providers are instructed to ask about sexual practices and STI history, in the crush of rushed routine appointments, it can go unaddressed unless the patient has a specific complaint or question.
Even if patients have concerns or symptoms, many are hesitant to bring up the topic. Some feel embarrassed or awkward. To help, here is a dialogue with two sexual health experts, full of suggestions about how to broach the topic with less embarrassment.
Likewise, CDC has some suggestions on the conversation and what to expect to be asked once the talk starts.
While testing should be individualized, based on your habits and lifestyle, the CDC offers this guide about testing.
True or False: If I get an STI, I can kiss my sex life goodbye. No one will be interested in being a partner.
Somewhat False. “People make assumptions about how people are going to react [to the news of a history of an STI],” Wyand says. He reassures people that most people do not reject a partner with an STI. He reminds them that many people have had at least one STI at some point in their lives. Still, the conversation can be tricky. Planned Parenthood has some suggestions on how to make the conversation a little easier.
Another option: check out dating sites for partners who also have an STI (google “dating sites for people with STDs”).
True or False: STIs are an equal opportunity infection.
False – sadly. It’s true that anyone who’s sexually active can contract an STI, some segments of the population are more likely to be affected. According to CDC, African Americans as well as men who have sex with men are more likely to contract some STIs. The disparities, the CDC says, are likely due to factors such as differing access to care, not differences in sexual behavior.
Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles-based independent journalist, specializing in health, behavior, fitness and lifestyle stories. Besides writing for Senior Planet, she reports for WebMD, Medscape, Endocrine Web, Practical Pain Management, Spine Universe and other sites. She is a mom, mother-in-law and proud and happy Mimi who likes to hike, jog and shop.
Doheny photo: Shaun Newton
This article offered by Senior Planet and Older Adults Technology Services is for informational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding any medical condition. If you think you may have a medical emergency call 911 immediately.