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Monday Medical: Know your risk for STIs

Susan Cunningham
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

As pandemic restrictions ease, officials are encouraging people to keep in mind the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), also known as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

“With the COVID lockdown, people maybe haven’t been as sexually active as in the past,” said Lauren Bryan, an infection preventionist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “But as people emerge from lockdowns and mingle more, we want to increase the awareness of STIs and encourage people to talk to their providers about sexual health.”

The numbers

According to the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rates of some of the most common STIs increased significantly between 2015 and 2019. For instance, chlamydia increased 19%, gonorrhea increased 56%, and syphilis increased 74%.



“People are becoming less assertive or consistent with using protection, as evidenced by the fact that 20 years ago, rates of STIs were at historic lows, and syphilis was nearly eliminated,” Bryan said. “Now, they’re on a historic rebound.”

The basics

Just as their name suggests, STIs are transmitted through sex, including vaginal, anal and oral sex. The only prevention is to use a barrier such as a condom. Other forms of birth control, such as a diaphragm, an IUD or birth control pills, do not provide protection.



STIs can cause a variety of issues, such as pain, sores, scarring and infertility, but for many STIs, a person with the infection may have mild or no symptoms.

Three common STIs that can be cured with antibiotics:

Chlamydia: This bacterial STI affects about 1.7 million Americans, causing symptoms such as unusual discharge and pain when urinating. It can lead to painful pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility in women and may cause testicular pain in men.

Gonorrhea: About half of people with this STI are asymptomatic. When symptoms are present, discharge or pain with urination are most common. Gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease in women and scarring and infertility in both women and men.

Syphilis: This STI can result in major birth defects and can progress through a person’s life, eventually causing more serious problems, such as neurological issues. It often presents with painless sores that heal on their own, making it hard for people to identify.

“A lot of these are asymptomatic,” Bryan said. “It’s important to have these screenings done even if people don’t have symptoms to make sure they don’t have an STI.”

Bacterial infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis can be successfully treated with antibiotics. There are good treatments for viral infections as well. The vaccine for the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) can help prevent cancers caused by the virus.

Screenings for STIs

Many STIs are screened for through a simple urine test.

“Screenings are widely available, so anywhere you can get health care should be able to screen you,” Bryan said.

If you test positive for an STI, it’s important to let your current and past partners know — otherwise, they may continue to spread the STI, and you may become reinfected.

“If you feel reluctant to contact a past partner, the health department can do that for you without disclosing your name,” Bryan said. “They’ll just let the person know they’ve had a potential exposure and should be tested.”

Know your risk

Data has shown that on any given day, about one in five Americans has an STI.

“People underestimate their risk sometimes,” Bryan said. “We definitely want to increase awareness and make sure people are protecting themselves.”

Bryan recommends having a candid discussion with your doctor to determine when and how you should be screened. And keep in mind that STIs can affect people anywhere, at any age.

“We have relatively high rates of HIV in the Yampa Valley. We tend to think it’s this magical bubble here, but it’s not,” Bryan said.

“And this isn’t just an issue in young people. There’s no age barrier for these infections, and this doesn’t go away once you’re in your 60s. It’s important to have these discussions with your health care provider throughout your life.”

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at cunninghamsbc@gmail.com.


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