Sexually transmitted infections and diseases remain a major public health challenge, especially among women in the southern United States. Young women between the ages of 19 and 24 bear the brunt of these infections, and though many are asymptomatic, the sexual health effects of these can range from physical discomfort to infertility, ectopic pregnancy, Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID), cancer, and even death. There are a number of STIs out there, but the ones that occur most commonly in women, based on recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes, and HIV/AIDS.
What’s more, women of minority races and ethnicities are most greatly affected by STIs of all types, not only in the South, but across the US. For example, Alaska Natives and African Americans are five and eight times more likely to be diagnosed with chlamydia than European Americans, respectively. Socioeconomic, cultural, language and gender barriers tend to limit the ability of some young women of color to receive information about STIs, including HIV, to access culturally appropriate health care, and to reduce sexual risks. A lack of well-funded prevention programs specifically designed to address women of color further limits the capacity of some these young women to protect themselves against sexually transmitted infections. Thus, the burden of protection tends to lie with each individual woman.
Many of us remember from our sex education classes that abstinence from all sex — vaginal, anal, and oral — is the best way to prevent the transmission of STIs. However, there are several alternative means to reduce the risk of contracting an STI during sex:
- Always use a barrier contraceptive: Use a new condom during every sexual encounter, even during your period. Other forms of contraception, including the pill, patch, ring, diaphragm, sponge, implant, intrauterine device, and rhythm method do not protect against STIs.
- Get tested and treated: If you suspect or notice any symptoms of an STI, see your doctor immediately so you can be properly diagnosed and treated. Abstain from sex until you have been checked, and if you are diagnosed with an STI ask your partner to be tested and treated as well, to prevent reinfection.
- Get vaccinated: In the case of HPV, a vaccine exists that can reduce your risk of contracting the strains of the virus that cause cervical cancer. The CDC recommends that all women between the ages of 21 and 65 receive routine screenings needed to protect against HPV.
There are many that will say that pursuing a monogamous relationship with another person is protective against sexually transmitted infections and diseases. However, in addition to factors such as poverty and access to quality STI services, a woman’s ability to negotiate safer sexual practices is what will affect her sexual health. A woman’s relationship status with her male partner, in particular, has been identified as an important predictor of her sexual health. Even a woman who has only one partner may be obliged to practice safer sex, because it may be his behavior rather than her own that increases her risks for STIs.
In all, the greatest thing any woman can do is to know the facts for herself. Know what the symptoms are and speak to a health care professional about any and all concerns. An STI can seriously affect a woman’s sexual, reproductive, and overall health, and can even threaten her life. Taking the necessary precautions to protect yourself can help ensure a safer, healthier future for both yourself and your partner.Amanda Zabala is a graduate intern at the Center for Maternal and Infant Health. She is currently attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Gillings School of Global Public Health, and majoring in Maternal and Child Health.