You鈥檙e 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聽or perfecting your skincare routine. But what about that one area we don鈥檛 really talk about: your sexual health?

Woman working at home.

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鈥檙e 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鈥檚 more, unless you鈥檙e super up on health news, you might have missed that the WHO made a pretty scary announcement聽recently: Those three STIs are growing more and more resistant to antibiotics, and WHO聽has been forced to update聽its guidelines for treatment.

鈥淭he 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,鈥 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聽you聽do? These STIs become more difficult to treat the longer they go undiagnosed, and their growing antibiotic resistance isn鈥檛 helping. So we talked to Cindy Pearson, Executive Director at National Women鈥檚 Health Network (NWHN), to find out how women can protect themselves and talk to their doctors about STI testing and treatment.

doctor and patient

鈥淪TIs will never be completely eradicated,鈥 Pearson explains. 鈥淪o the best way to protect yourself is to prevent yourself from being infected.鈥 She says teens and women in their 20s are already doing a great job of that 鈥 but older women, especially those who are past the age where they can pregnant, might not be thinking about it as much.聽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. 鈥淥verall that鈥檚 only about 25 percent, and聽we can see that鈥檚 not enough by how many cases of STIs get diagnosed each year,鈥澛爏he explains.

The other thing you should do regularly: Get tested. Pearson stresses that STIs shouldn鈥檛 be something you should be afraid or embarrassed to talk about, and she wants women to think about getting screened聽the same way that they would a pap smear or a blood pressure check. In fact, STI screenings are now considered 鈥減reventative health care鈥 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鈥檛 talk about STI prevention as commonly as we should. 鈥淐ontraception 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鈥檙e not a good, healthy, normal person if you think you might have one,鈥 says Pearson. 鈥淲omen 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鈥檚 not something that just happens to people who are extremely sexually active.鈥

So the next time you go in for a check-up, don鈥檛 be shy about asking your doctor for a screening (or if their office is practicing under the WHO鈥檚 updated treatment guidelines). And if you feel like something might be wrong between check-ups 鈥 pain or burning during urination, a change in the texture and odor of your vaginal secretions, or another STI symptom 鈥 don鈥檛 hesitate to make an appointment then either. 鈥淚f something seems different or not right, don鈥檛 be afraid to go in and get it checked out,鈥 advises Pearson. 鈥淜now your body, and know what鈥檚 normal for you so you can recognize it.鈥

How do you manage your sexual and reproductive health? Tweet us your tips @BritandCo!

(Photos via Getty)