As a medical writer, one of my most gratifying roles is that of educator. I may be writing pieces that teach doctors about a new drug or how to take care of a poisoned patient (since I’m also a toxicologist), or teaching veterinary medicine students about antidotes for poisoned animals. I also write to educate patients about how to keep themselves and their families healthy. So why is a medical writer blogging on SAS for Women’s website? I’ve discovered there is a critical need to educate women, especially older women navigating their new, life after divorce about how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), also known as sexually infections (STIs).
Women who were in a long marriage may now be in their 40s or older. These women are not in the age group that is targeted for STI education and may not be thinking about the risks they run once pregnancy is not an issue for them.
Please read and ponder these seven myths about STIs. These are meant to be short and easy to take in so you’ll begin your personal education and protection. For more details, read the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s site on STDs or talk to your healthcare provider. And, if you think you may have an STI, make an appointment to see your healthcare provider.
Myth 1: STIs are only transmitted through bodily fluid.
Some STIs are transmitted via skin-to-skin contact (such as herpes or human papillomavirus [HPV]) and body fluid-contact is not necessary for transmission. So, although some STIs require bodily fluid contact, some do not. A condom only covers so much skin (see Myth #5).
Myth 2: My partner tested “negative” for STIs so he is not infected.
If someone is exposed to an STI and is tested too soon, STI testing may not pick up the infection as there can be a delay in symptoms (or no symptoms at all) and/or a delay in a positive testing result. Also, STI testing cannot test for every STI. For example, in men, there is not a test for HPV.
Myth 3: Oral sex is completely safe.
There are some STIs that are transmittable via oral sex (either as the giver or receiver) such as HPV, herpes, and gonorrhea. Certain strains of HPV are linked not only to cervical cancer but also to esophageal cancer (making unprotected oral sex a bigger health risk than some women may realize). Safer sex practices for oral sex include using a latex condom or dental dam.
Myth 4: If I don’t see blisters, there is no chance my partner has herpes.
Partners with herpes infections can transmit the infection even before blisters appear. Many people with genital herpes do not know they even have it. Note that testing for herpes may not be included on an STI testing panel.
Myth 5: Condoms are 100% effective.
Nothing, except abstinence, is 100% effective in preventing STIs. So even with condoms, there is a risk. Using latex condoms for all sexual activity and knowing your partner’s sexual history and STI testing status, can decrease the risk considerably.
Myth 6: STI testing is done at my annual check-up.
It may be, but verify. Not all check-ups, even at the OB-GYN, will include STI testing. Ask your healthcare provider what tests are done, and based on your sexual history, if you need additional tests.
Myth 7: If I am in an exclusive/monogamous relationship, there is no risk for an STI.
See Myth 2. It can sometimes take months for an infection to show up on an STI screen and many STIs have no symptoms. Keep in mind that it’s not only who your partner is with now, it’s who he has been with in previous months.
No doubt you are navigating a lot in your divorce recovery and new life as an independent woman. Reading this information may be overwhelming and even frightening. But knowledge is power when it comes to keeping yourself healthy. Women (and men) need to be aware of the risk of STIs no matter what their age. Some strategies like keeping condoms handy (and using them!) and the sharing of recent STI testing results between partners can help decrease the risk for an STI. If you are thinking about dating, or are already out there, make a plan for how you will broach the topic of STIs with your new partner and how you can make sure you are both in the know regarding STI status. You and your partner can get tested together or you both can share the testing results via email (so you can see what exactly he was tested for).
Dr. Allison Muller, Pharm.D, D.ABAT, is a board-certified toxicologist and registered pharmacist with over 20 years’ experience in the field of clinical toxicology. After a nearly 20-year career leading the Poison Control Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Dr. Muller is presently an independent consultant specializing in medical writing, medical education, and providing expert witness testimony on cases involving medications, alcohol, chemicals, and environmental toxins.
This blog post is not meant to provide medical advice. If you have possible symptoms of an STI or feel you are at risk, see your healthcare provider.