You’re constantly thinking about how to stay healthy from the outside in, whether that means jumping out of bed for early-morning workouts, chugging homemade green juice or perfecting your skincare routine. But what about that one area we don’t really talk about: your sexual health?
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that, annually, 131 million people are infected with chlamydia, 78 million with gonorrhea, and 5.6 million with syphilis. If they’re not caught early, these sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can lead to serious issues like pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage and even infertility, and they make you two-to-three times more at-risk for HIV. And what’s more, unless you’re super up on health news, you might have missed that the WHO made a pretty scary announcement recently: Those three STIs are growing more and more resistant to antibiotics, and WHO has been forced to update its guidelines for treatment.
“The new WHO guidelines reinforce the need to treat these STIs with the right antibiotic, at the right dose and the right time to reduce their spread and improve sexual and reproductive health. To do that, national health services need to monitor the patterns of antibiotic resistance in these infections within their countries,” said Ian Askew, Director of Reproductive Health and Research, WHO.
You can read the full treatment guidelines for doctors and health agencies here, but what should you do? These STIs become more difficult to treat the longer they go undiagnosed, and their growing antibiotic resistance isn’t helping. So we talked to Cindy Pearson, Executive Director at National Women’s Health Network (NWHN), to find out how women can protect themselves and talk to their doctors about STI testing and treatment.
“STIs will never be completely eradicated,” Pearson explains. “So the best way to protect yourself is to prevent yourself from being infected.” She says teens and women in their 20s are already doing a great job of that — but older women, especially those who are past the age where they can pregnant, might not be thinking about it as much. Lots of women take birth control, but Pearson recommends that you also take a second look at using a barrier method (like a condom) as either a primary or secondary form of protection to prevent STIs. Right now, about 15 percent of women use condoms as their main form of protection, and another 8 percent use them as one component of a dual protection system along with another form of contraceptive. “Overall that’s only about 25 percent, and we can see that’s not enough by how many cases of STIs get diagnosed each year,” she explains.
The other thing you should do regularly: Get tested. Pearson stresses that STIs shouldn’t be something you should be afraid or embarrassed to talk about, and she wants women to think about getting screened the same way that they would a pap smear or a blood pressure check. In fact, STI screenings are now considered “preventative health care” as part of the Affordable Care Act, which means they can be included in your annual gynecologist exam at no extra fee.
Yet we still don’t talk about STI prevention as commonly as we should. “Contraception is pretty normalized and talked about publicly, and women feel like they can talk about it without revealing something intimate. But STIs have a stigma about them that you’re not a good, healthy, normal person if you think you might have one,” says Pearson. “Women need to look at that and see it for the falsehood that it is. They happen to all kinds of people, of all ages and it’s not something that just happens to people who are extremely sexually active.”
So the next time you go in for a check-up, don’t be shy about asking your doctor for a screening (or if their office is practicing under the WHO’s updated treatment guidelines). And if you feel like something might be wrong between check-ups — pain or burning during urination, a change in the texture and odor of your vaginal secretions, or another STI symptom — don’t hesitate to make an appointment then either. “If something seems different or not right, don’t be afraid to go in and get it checked out,” advises Pearson. “Know your body, and know what’s normal for you so you can recognize it.”
How do you manage your sexual and reproductive health? Tweet us your tips @BritandCo!
(Photos via Getty)