STI Basics

General STI and STD Info

Sexually transmitted infections are infections that are transmitted from person-to-person during anal, oral, or vaginal sex; genital skin-to-skin contact, or when fluids are exchanged from one person to another. This can occur via direct contact with the fluid or through the mutual use of sex toys.  

While the terms sexually transmitted infection (STI) and sexually transmitted disease (STD) are often used interchangeably, STI is now the most accepted and commonly used term. This is because it more accurately describes the sexual health challenges a person may be facing. STDs are more recently understood as the progression of an infection to the point where it’s begun to affect body systems and causes illness. Not all STIs progress into STDs. Historically, the term “disease” has carried a heavier stigma than the term “infection” and therefore left people feeling ashamed of something that more than half of Americans will experience at one or more points in their life.  

The three categories of STIs are typically characterized by how they are contracted and whether they are curable or not. Curable STIs are typically contracted via bacteria or parasite. Those that can’t be cured are typically contracted via a virus. Viral STIs can often be treated or managed to control any side effects and symptoms. Some of the most common STIs include:  


  • Chlamydia
  • Gonorrhea
  • Syphilis


  • Pubic lice (crabs)
  • Scabies
  • Trichomoniasis


  • Genital Herpes
  • Hepatitis B, D, and E
  • Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS)
  • Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)
  • Genital warts

STIs typically live inside the body. While they can’t live outside the body for long, it’s still important to wash, dry, and properly store any toys used during sex to avoid transmission during their next use. Failure to wash these items between uses—especially when using toys on yourself and sharing them with a partner(s)—may lead to an increased risk of transmitting or contracting an STI. 

For many STIs, signs and symptoms can present in the same way and often include the following: 

  • Swelling or itching on or around the genitals, anus, butt cheeks, thighs, or mouth 
  • Bumps, rash, or sores on or around the genitals, anus, butt cheeks, thighs, or mouth 
  • Burning or frequent urination 
  • Vaginal blood that isn’t your period 
  • Discharge from genitals or anus with a bad odor; discharge that’s a different color or amount than usual for those with a vulva 
  • Lower abdominal or back pain 
  • Painful sex 

It's important to note, however, that most STIs are asymptomatic, meaning they don’t present with any symptoms.  


Even though some STIs are common and easily transmitted, there are strategies you can use to reduce your risk of contracting one. 

Abstinence or Self-stimulation 

The best way to reduce your risk of contracting an STI is practicing abstinence or sticking to self-masturbation. Even participation in activities like outercourse and mutual masturbation can carry some risk if sex toys aren’t cleaned properly, or open sores are present where the body is being touched. That said, if you do choose to have sex—no matter whether it be anal, oral, or vaginal—there are safer sex practices to protect yourself from contracting or greatly reduce your risk of transmitting an infection, if you already have one. 

Barrier Methods 

Barrier methods like condoms and dental dams are one method of protection against STIs. When used correctly every time, condoms are highly effective at preventing pregnancy and the transmission of STIs. Condoms can be worn either externally over a penis or internally in the vaginal canal. They come in a variety of sizes, colors, and even flavors. Condoms are also made from a variety of materials including latex and plastic (latex free for those with allergies). Condoms work to prevent STIs by creating a physical barrier preventing fluids from passing from person to person. Regardless of the type of condom, lube that is either water- or silicone-based should be used with condoms during any kind of penetrative sex. Doing so can help to reduce any friction and subsequent ripping that may occur as the condom dries out or in the absence of natural lubrication. 

There are also condoms made of lambskin or animal skin, however, they don’t effectively protect against STIs because they are porous. The pores on natural membrane condoms are too large to block the passage of viruses. However, because sperm are larger than the pores and therefore impenetrable, these types of condoms are still effective in preventing pregnancy. 

Dental dams work by placing a physical barrier between people to reduce the chance of exchanging fluids. Dental dams can be purchased at the pharmacy. You can also make them by cutting the tip of an external condom off, then cutting the condom from tip to shaft so it can be laid flat like a piece of paper over the area where oral sex is going to be performed.  

Medication and Vaccinations 

Depending on the type of STI, there are specific medications or vaccinations you can take to reduce transmission or contraction of the infection. Taking Pre-exposure Prophalaxis (PrEP) can reduce your risk of contracting HIV. PrEP can be taken orally in pill form every day or administered via shot. The shots are taken one month apart and then one shot every other month following the initial round. This medication must be prescribed by a medical professional. 

Note that PrEP does not prevent pregnancy or protect against STIs other than HIV. 

There are also vaccines available to help prevent against STIs like hepatitis A and B as well as HPV. In the United States, in most cases, vaccination against the two strains of hepatitis is routinely given following birth and during monthly check-ups during infancy. However, if you haven’t received these vaccines, you can still do so into adulthood by visiting with a primary care provider. 

Gardasil 9 is recommended for kids between the ages of eleven and twelve to help prevent HPV. However, it can be given to children as early as nine years old and adults until 45.  

Testing for STIs

Getting screened for STIs is another important step to maintain your overall health and well-being. All people between the ages of 13 to 64 should be tested for HIV at least once in their lifetime. Those who are sexually active—regardless of age, sex, or sexual orientation—should be tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia every year. It’s recommended that those who may be at a higher risk for contracting an STI test for syphilis, HIV, and hepatitis annually. Those at higher risk often include those: 

  • Having unprotected sex 
  • With multiple partners 
  • With a history of STIs 
  • Who inject drugs or misuse alcohol 
  • Who are forced to have sex 

Testing can be completed at most primary care facilities or local Department of Health (DOH) facilities at the request of the patient. These tests may require a blood draw, finger stick, urine sample, or anal, oral, or cervical swab depending on the STI they’re testing for and the types of sex a person is having. It’s important to note that routine STI tests typically only screen for gonorrhea, HIV, and chlamydia. You may need to specifically ask to be screened for any STIs other than those, in which case a health care provider can guide you through the process. 

At-home testing kits for STIs like HIV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea can also be purchased online or at your local pharmacy, requested at low- to no-cost at a local sexual health clinic, or requested often free of charge through your local Department of Health. It’s important to note, however, that at-home testing kits are less accurate than in-clinic testing often due to variability in sample collection. Therefore, it’s recommended to confirm an at-home positive test with an in-clinic test. 

Testing can range from free to a couple hundred dollars depending on the type of test you receive and your insurance status. Calling the clinic or your insurance company beforehand to discuss what the test would cost or how much they will cover can help you plan for what to expect.  


Treatment for an STI can look different depending on the STI for which you are being treated. For most bacterial or parasitic STIs, an antibiotic or cream can be prescribed or purchased over the counter (OTC) following a diagnosis. In cases of viral STIs, long-term treatment in the form of an antiviral is often prescribed to help manage symptoms and reduce the spread or maturation of the virus.  

Life with an STI or STD

With advancements in technology and medicine, it’s possible to live a full and eventful life with a chronic or long-term STI. In addition to following the treatment plan a health care provider has laid out for you, it’s important to discuss with both current and future partner(s) your STI status as well as their own. Understanding each other's comfort level in terms of which sexual activities you’re willing to engage in as well as what protective method(s) work best for you both can be a great place to start the conversation. 

It is also recommended that you take some time to review information about STIs so you can better understand your situation.  Finding resources created by people who have an STI or STD themselves can allow you to gain more expertise from someone living through similar experiences. Self-education can also be empowering when it comes to having conversations with current or future partners as it allows you to be an expert in your own lived experience. 

If you’ve recently been diagnosed with a STI and your partner doesn’t feel comfortable getting tested, consider discussing expedited partner therapy (EPT) with the health care provider who gave you your diagnosis. This option allows your partner(s) to receive treatment for the same STI you’re being treated for without having to be tested.  

It’s also important to adhere to medical guidance when prescribed medications for treating STIs. Even if you begin to feel better or begin to see symptoms disappear before you’ve completed the medication, it’s important to finish treatment in its entirety. While you complete the treatment, abstain from sexual activity to avoid passing the STI back and forth between yourself and your partner(s). 

Last reviewed/updated: March 25, 2024

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