11 STI Myths
Updated: May 1
As a major topic in the media and interpersonal discussions, people have lots to say about sex, and STIs are no exception. No doubt you've heard some bits of information on TV, in the halls at school, from the internet, or on the bus that you're wondering are true or not. Have no fear! HRT is here to clear up 11 common STI myths you may have heard.
1. STDs are different from STIs
Unless you are a medical professional, the terms STD (sexually transmitted disease) and STI (sexually transmitted infection) are basically interchangeable. STI is technically a slightly broader term because there have to be symptoms in order for the infection to be classified as a disease, but someone can be infected before they start showing symptoms. For that reason, HRT likes to use the term STI, but both are perfectly acceptable.
2.Birth Control keeps you from getting an STI.
Some people think that hormonal birth control protects against both pregnancy and STIs. However, this is not the case. Most hormonal birth controls, like the pill, protect against pregnancy by preventing the ovaries from releasing an egg. While this hinders pregnancy because if no egg is released, no egg can be fertilized, and therefore, there will be no pregnancy. This tactic, however, does not prohibit an exchange of body fluids, nor does it reduce skin to skin contact, both ways STIs spread. And although correlation does not necessarily mean causation, studies have linked some forms of hormonal birth control to increased rates of vaginal infections and certain STIs (a).
3. You don’t have to worry about STIs if you wear a condom.
Condoms work by shielding the individual’s genitals from the other party’s body fluids, thus preventing the spread of STIs that are transferred through the exchanging of body fluids. However, not all STIs spread through body fluids. Some STIs spread through skin-to-skin contact, and those are easier to spread even if you use a condom because they don’t rely on the body fluids condoms are designed to catch. Some people also may not realize that condoms are highly prone to user error. A lot can go wrong when using a condom. You have to make sure that the condom isn’t expired, that it has been stored correctly, that you are pairing it with the right type of lubricant, that your partner does not have a latex allergy, that you are using the condom the whole time during sex, and that the condom doesn't break or fall off. Using a condom does not guarantee that you won’t catch an STI. To learn more about the specifics of condom usage, visit the CDC at https://www.cdc.gov/condomeffectiveness/latex.html
4. If my genitals don’t hurt, I don’t have an STI.
This myth can be dangerous! STIs usually have little to no noticeable symptoms. Just because you aren’t experiencing any discomfort in your genitals or any of the STI symptoms you may have heard about, does not mean that you are not infected. Remember, you can be infected before you start showing symptoms, and you may not even notice the symptoms you do have. STI symptoms can be difficult to catch, especially for females, whose reproductive organs are interior. Some symptoms mimic those of other illnesses like yeast infections and UTIs. Syphilis even causes faint rashes on your hands and feet as well as flu-like symptoms (b). This means that you can have an STI and not even know it. If you are sexually active, it is crucial to get tested. The CDC recommends that sexually active adults get tested at least once a year, and at risk adults get tested as often as every 3 months (c). Promise of Life Network currently provides free testing for chlamydia and gonorrhea and will soon be offering free testing for HIV and syphilis.
Visit https://alphaomegacenter.org/services/std-testing/ to schedule an appointment today
5. STIs are no big deal
According to the CDC, 1 in 5 Americans will have an STI on any given day (d). It can be tempting to think that because STIs are so common, that they are nothing to worry about, but that is not the case. When left untreated, STIs can cause serious harm to your body, especially your reproductive system that can make it more difficult to have children later on. Even if you are not hoping to have biological children, STIs can have a devastating impact on your overall health. HIV/AIDS can greatly weaken your immune system, causing you to get sick more easily. HPV can lead to various kinds of cervical, penial, anal, and throat cancers (e). When left untreated, late stages of syphilis can lead to neurological issues like dementia (b). Viral STIs like HIV, HPV*, and Herpes can’t be cured, so once you have the virus, it is in you for life, even if you don’t currently have symptoms.
6. No one will want you if you get an STI
Again, STIs are extremely common, and lots of adults have them. Your life is not over if you get an STI, even an incurable viral STI. The right partner for you is someone who is going to overlook your past and love you no matter what, warts and all (pun intended, as HPV can cause genital warts). Having an STI or having had an STI does not make you any less lovable or worthy of healthy relationships. Modern medicine has developed treatments to help manage the symptoms and limit the spread of STIs. You can’t change the past, but you can make healthy choices to avoid risk in the future and be a committed, faithful, and loving partner now.
7. My partner got tested, so I don’t have to worry about STIs
Your current partner being tested for STIs does not guarantee that none of your previous partners have had an STI. You also have to trust that your partner is knowledgeable and honest about their sexual health. You have to trust that they are going to be completely faithful in the relationship and will not be exposed to any STIs from other people while you are together.
Even if you fully trust your partner, most lab tests do not test for all STIs. In fact, there is no approved way to test for HPV on a male penis, so your male partner may have HPV even if their test results came back clean (f, g). When getting tested, you may also want to specify that you would like to be tested for as many STIs as possible or you may want to ask your partner which specific STIs they have been tested for.
8. You are at risk of getting an STI any time you have sex
Did you know you can avoid sexual risks while still having sex? It’s all about the context! Sexual Risk Avoidance means reserving all sexual activity for a lifelong committed relationship like marriage. If both you and your partner both practice sexual risk avoidance, there will be virtually no risk of STDs after marriage. STIs are only contracted from contact with an infected area, so if neither of you have ever been exposed to an STI, you won’t be able to pass it to one another when sexually active. Sexual Risk Avoidance doesn’t mean never having sex, it means saving sex for a time when it is healthier, safer, and less risky, within marriage. The goal being that both parties have remained STI free, and you and your partner are in a better position to navigate a pregnancy. The intimate act of sex can feel safer within that committed relationship. In short, it is not the act of sex that causes STIs to spread, but exposure to an infected area.
9. You can only get an STI from vaginal intercourse
Some STIs spread through body fluids, such as HIV/AIDS. Others spread through skin-to-skin contact, including HPV and pubic lice. That means these STIs can be spread through any kind of sexual activity, as long as there is contact with an infected area. You may think that because there isn’t a risk of pregnancy in your encounter, that you’re off the hook and you don’t have to worry about any physical risks, but that is not the case! Many STIs can spread through oral sex, including syphilis. Pubic Lice may attach themselves to eyelashes, eyebrows, or other facial hair during oral sex. Individuals may contract HSV-2, which causes genital herpes around the mouth or HSV-1, which causes cold sores, on the genitals as a result of oral sex with an infected partner (h). Cases have been reported of Gonorrhea in the eye as a result of ejaculation on the face (i). STIs can be transmitted even through manual stimulation (using hands to give a partner sexual pleasure). Although uncommon, HPV, the most common STI in the United States, can be spread in this way (j).
10. Only homosexual men can get HIV/AIDS
The idea that only men who have sex with men can contract HIV/AIDS was a harmful rumor that arose during the AIDS Epidemic in the 1980s. Anyone who has sex with an infected person can contract the infection, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Human Immunodeficiency Virus can be transmitted during various kinds of sexual activity, including vaginal and anal sex, and very rarely oral sex (k). HIV can also be transmitted during nonsexual acts that exchange body fluids, such as sharing needles. At the height of the AIDS Epidemic, some individuals unfortunately contracted the virus from blood transfusions where the blood was donated by an infected person. However, this misfortune is practically unthinkable today due to what we have learned about Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
11.You can get an STI from a toilet seat
You may be thinking based on what you know of how STIs spread that you should be worried about contracting an STI from a toilet seat. Afterall, if some STIs spread through contact with an infected area, wouldn’t STIs spread from the infected person, to the seat, to the next victim who sits down? Actually getting an STI from a public toilet seat, however, is virtually impossible. Viral and bacterial STIs cannot survive for very long outside of the body. The conditions of the dry toilet seat do not allow the bacteria or virus to survive long enough to infect the next “victim,” but we still don’t suggest sitting directly on the seat of public restrooms (l)!
Have you heard any other crazy myths about STIs? We'd love to hear them! Check out our blog post "What Do You Need To Know About STDs?" and the HRT Instagram page to find more STI facts!
*In most cases, HPV will actually go away on its own in about two years. However, this is not always the case, and when the virus does not clear up on its own, it can lead to serious health issues like genital warts and cancers. (m)
a. Mayo Clinic, "Depo-Provera (contraceptive injection)." mayoclinic.org: Feb 22, 2022
b. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Syphilis CDC Basic Fact Sheet.” cdc.gov: Feb 10, 2022.
c. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Which STD Tests Should I Get” cdc.gov: Dec 14, 2021.
d. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “1 in 5 People in the US Have a Sexually Transmitted Infection” cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom: Jan 25, 2021.
e. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Cancers Caused By HPV” cdc.gov: Feb 28, 2022.
f. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Genital HPV Infection - Basic Fact Sheet” cdc.gov: April 12, 2022.
g. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “HPV and Men - Fact Sheet” cdc.gov: April 18, 2022.
h. Smart Sex Resource, "Hepres: A Patient's Guide." BC Centre for Disease Control: 2023.
i. Kumar, Pramod. National Library of Medicine, "Gonorrhea presenting as red eye:Rare case." National Center for Biotechnology Information: June 2012. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3326851/#:~:text=Gonorrohea%20infects%20mucous%20membranes%20viz,the%20other%20sexually%20active%20adults.
j. Planned Parenthood, “Can I Get Any Sort of Diseases From My Boyfriend Fingering Me?” plannedparenthood.org/blog: May 10, 2011.
k. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Oral Sex and HIV Risk” cdc.gov: May 2016.
l. Beth Israel Lahey Health, “True or False: It Is Possible For a Person to Get a Sexually Transmitted Infection From a Public Toilet Seat” Winchester Hospital: 2023.
m. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, "Genital HPV Infection - Basic Fact Sheet." cdc.gov: April 12, 2022.