It can sometimes be difficult and embarrassing to talk about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or ask for advice on how to prevent getting an STI. Stigma Health knows this, and that’s why we’re here! While we’re more than happy to help you get tested, the best advice we can give you is that “prevention is better than a cure” – particularly when some STIs can’t be cured.
The most effective STI prevention strategy is total abstinence – i.e., don’t have any intimate or sexual contact with another person, at all… ever. But where’s the fun in that?!
Most people would agree that it’s impractical and unfulfilling to completely forego physical intimacy in order to prevent getting an STI, so read on for more practical STI prevention strategies.
Use barrier protection (condoms and dental dams) and a water-based lubricant whenever you’re physically intimate with someone, especially if you’re not completely certain your relationship is mutually exclusive.
However, while barrier protection is very effective for prevention of most STIs, if they break or are used incorrectly, they’re rendered useless. Additionally, there are some STIs (like herpes (HSV), syphilis and genital warts (HPV)) that male and female condoms can’t protect against, because they cover only the shaft of the penis or inside of the vagina, and don’t protect the scrotum (ball sack), perineal (around the vagina or base of the penis, through to the anus) or perianal areas (around the anus).
Moreover, while you might take a condom with you on a night out, it’s less likely you throw a dental dam or latex glove in your pocket or handbag. Point being, we don’t always have adequate protection with us, so if you can’t practice safe sex 100% effectively, 100% of the time, it’s safest to not have sex.
According to one survey, 26.3% of Australians have had over 20 sexual partners in their life, and 71.1% have had 1 to 5 partners in the last year alone. If we were practicing 100% effective safe sex every time we had sex these numbers might not be that bad but, according to another survey, an average 61% of Australians have reported having unprotected sex without knowing their partner’s sexual history, and 16% have admitted to having an STI at some point.
Obviously, the fewer people with whom you have intimate or sexual contact, the less likely you are to come into contact with an STI. In the same way that social distancing and limiting your social contacts can help reduce the spread of viruses like COVID-19, limiting your sexual contacts can help reduce the spread of STIs.
For women especially, limiting their number of sexual partners can decrease their risk of cancer. A 2012/13 scientific study showed that women who had 10 or more sexual partners during their lifetime were 91% more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than those who had one partner or none. This is possibly because the link between certain STIs and cancers is stronger in women, e.g., HPV and cervical cancer.
While many STIs cannot be vaccinated against, there are a number that can:
Talking about our sexual health and history with a new partner can be daunting, and it may be a difficult topic to broach with someone we haven’t known for long – even if we’re starting an exclusive relationship that we intend to be long-term.
It can also be awkward having that discussion with a “friend with benefits”, even if we’ve known them for a while, and let’s face it, we’re unlikely to have that discussion in the heat of the moment with a “one night stand” (even if they end up becoming more than that).
It takes courage and a certain level of self-confidence, comfort and trust to be completely open and honest about our sexual health and history, but it’s definitely a worthwhile discussion to have. To prevent STIs we need to become more comfortable talking about safe sex practices and discussing our sexual histories before we’re intimate with someone, and it’s better to have the discussion beforehand than to find out later that you have an STI and need to contact past partners to let them know.
Regular STI testing should definitely be part of your STI prevention arsenal, even if you practice safe sex most of the time. Some STIs don’t show any physical symptoms so, if you have unprotected sex, it’s important not to assume you don’t have an STI.
If you’re sexually active it’s recommended you get an STI check every 12 months, and if you have an increased number of sexual partners it’s recommended you have more frequent checks.
We are an online healthcare service that aims to make your life more convenient by eliminating the barriers like embarrassment and inconvenience, which often prevent people from undergoing simple medical tests. We started with STIs because they are a serious problem in Australia and are for the most part easily tested for and treated, but we will be expanding our service offering soon so stay tuned!