I’ve been sexually active for three decades and I've never had an STI scare – until recently. A partner of mine tested positive for chlamydia. I was grateful that he let me know immediately, and did my best to be supportive.
Chlamydia trachomatis is a super-common bacterial infection spread through vaginal, anal and oral sex. Close to 3 million Americans get it every year. It can often be treated with just a single round of antibiotics, so in the grand scheme of STIs, it’s no big deal. The problem is that most people who contract it don’t show any symptoms.
I couldn’t get an appointment at Planned Parenthood for a few days, so I opted to go to a neighborhood walk-in clinic. I practice consensual non-monogamy (CNM), so my sexual behavior could potentially have a domino effect on other partners' health. I get tested consistently every three months for STIs; more frequently if a new partner is brought into the mix or there’s reason for concern. I'm careful, to say the least.
Even so, the doctor I visited wasn’t exactly empathetic. I was schooled on all the diseases my non-monogamous lifestyle could beget and put on an antibiotic before test results were available. It was assumed I’d contracted chlamydia and needed to be cured. In retrospect, I would’ve held out to get a firm diagnosis at Planned Parenthood before subjecting my fussy GI system to Azithromycin (aka, severe diarrhea and no anal sex for weeks).
As soon as I left the clinic, I reached out to my partners with the inconclusive news. For the most part, they handled it well. I’m lucky to have partners who take safer sex seriously and kick ass at communicating. All things considered, it could’ve been much, much worse. I was put on a sex time-out for the seven-day course of my meds. It sucked, but I made up for it by stepping up my masturbation routine. My doctor did not recommend getting re-tested since the antibiotics would knock the disease out of my system. But, because I like data points and knowing my status, I went in for additional testing roughly a month after I finished my course of antibiotics. The tests came back negative; I was relieved.
Here’s the thing. I’m a sex writer and educator. I talk about sex and pleasure and empowerment all day long. And yet somehow, when I had an STI scare, I didn't know how to handle it. I was scared, I felt shame and, more than anything, was terrified that I had infected one of my partners – or one of their partners. Even though I knew chlamydia was an easily curable disease, it was an unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling. One of my partners noted that I seemed to be having a hard time dealing with a (maybe) diagnosis. He was right and did a fantastic job to make me feel OK with everything that was going on. (Thank you.)
As much as I felt like an outlier, the reality is that around half of the human population will get an STI at some point. If you think you’ve contracted an STI, here’s how to handle it:
Take a Deep Breath
You are not alone. Sure, it can be scary to get an STI diagnosis, but it’s incredibly common. I wish I could wave a magic wand to take away all the stigmas surrounding STIs because it’s in no way productive. Most STIs are pretty harmless, but a positive diagnosis can still be upsetting. This stigma keeps people from getting tested, talking about sexual health and making smart choices. Take a deep breath; you’re going to be fine.
If you think you’ve been exposed to an STI, get tested – even if you don’t show any symptoms. If you’re exhibiting symptoms, go to your health care provider. A lot of STIs can be quickly cleared up with antibiotics. Many, if left untreated, can lead to more serious and permanent health problems, including pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility and an increased risk of ectopic pregnancy. The sooner you know you have an STI, the sooner you can cure it. If cost is an issue, many family planning clinics, public health centers and student health centers offer services for free or a sliding scale fee. Find free testing at GetTested.com.
Tell Your Partners
If you test positive for an STI, tell your partner(s) as soon as possible so they can get tested and treated (if necessary). This will help reduce the risk of spreading an STI to other partners, as well as reduce the chances of a partner passing an STI back to you. If you think you’ve put any current or previous partners at risk, be an ethical human being and inform them of their potential risk. They have a right to know.
If you’re not sure not sure how to kick-start the conversation with your partner, here are a few resources to help get you started:
Make sure you follow through on whatever course of action your doctor prescribes. That means taking all your medicine – exactly as your doctor tells you to – and holding off on sex until a bacterial STI is gone.
An STI diagnosis can be a nerve-racking experience that can bring up some pretty strong emotions. That's totally understandable. Hopefully, your partner is understanding and willing to listen. If they’re not, it’s perfectly OK to take your fears and concerns to an empathetic third party, whether it’s a close friend, counselor or therapist.
My doctor didn't recommend getting retested since the course of antibiotics would kick any infection out of my system. That said, I went and got retested after I finished my cycle of meds because I like knowing my status.
Practice Safer Sex
Since you can spread STIs even when you don't have any symptoms, it's a good idea to avoid unprotected sex. Talk to new partners about STI status before engaging in sexual activity and continue to get tested regularly.
Be Kind to Yourself
Before you blame yourself or your partner, know that STIs are incredibly common. They do not discriminate and can happen to anyone.
The bottom line: There's no right or wrong way to handle an STI scare. Just be ethical and disclose positive test results with partners. And take care of yourself!