The Shocking Surge of STDs: How to Stay Safe
It’s that time of year! The sun is out, schools are letting out for the year, invites are flowing in for rooftop parties, picnics, barbecues and beach days. As you look forward to all of your summer fun, it’s important not to forget that temperatures aren’t the only things rising.
Unfortunately, sexually transmitted diseases (or more recently referred to as sexually transmitted infections, or STIs) are also seeing troubling increases. These rates have steadily increased over the last several years, not just over the summer
We hate to put a damper on your sex life, so in that spirit, here are some of the sexual health trends to keep an eye out for, why transmission rates appear to be surging and how you can maintain sexual health all summer and all year long.
By the Numbers: Steep Rise
Let’s start with the facts. Here are some concerning, hard-hitting trends for sexual health in the United States according to 2022 data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- In the US in 2021, there were almost 2.5 million new cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, more than doubling in the last twenty years.
- New syphilis infections increased by 26% year over year, and have been rising for years. To put that in context, that is the highest rate of syphilis infections since 1991. In 2021, a total of more than 52,000 cases were reported.
- New cases of HIV transmission increased 16% in 2021. These new cases are disproportionately impacting members of the LGBTQ+ community and people of color, across all genders.
- Gonorrhea and chlamydia have also seen steady increases in recent years, with some strains showing a resistance to antibiotic treatment. In fact, both increased by 2.5% in 2021 alone, and by 10% and 3.6% since 2014 respectively.
Before we talk about the possible reasons for these surges, we at ONE® want to make one thing very clear: even with increasing transmission rates, the people experiencing, treating and/or living with these conditions are no less deserving of respect or love. Let’s break the stigmas of sexual health and buck these trends together.
Why The Sudden Surge
So now that we’ve covered some of the more concerning statistics for sexual health, what are some of the reasons we’re seeing them surge? Well, experts have put forward a handful of different theories. Here are some of the most common:
1. Changes to Sexual Health Practices During the Pandemic
As far as sexual health practices, some of the biggests shifts during the COVID-19 pandemic were in how frequently people sought out testing and treatment, as access to regular medical care was complicated and often restricted. The pandemic also saw a rise in drug and alcohol use, especially opioid use, which may have contributed to riskier behavior. Lastly, as the panic around the COVID-19 pandemic subsided in some communities, people were in the mood to celebrate, be social and have sex. This liberation was a breath of fresh air for many, but it also may play a role in some of the new infections.
2. Shifts in Funding Priorities and Sex Education
Somewhat related, one of the other effects of the COVID-19 pandemic was the allocation of public funding. As dollars poured into addressing this life-threatening virus, dollars may not have been going to sexual health education campaigns. The rise of the mpox (formerly, Monkeypox) outbreak in some areas also required the immediate attention of health professionals and community activists, and some of those funds were taken from HIV and STI resources. On a broader scale, changes to sex education through sweeping curriculum changes (and even some bans) have left a bit of a knowledge gap, and some students are missing vital information to help them maintain their sexual health.
3. Attitudes Around Safer Sex Post-PrEP and Other Medical Advancements
No ifs, ands or buts about it – pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, has completely changed the game for HIV prevention. Patients can take a daily dose or periodic injections to prevent the transmission of the HIV virus following potential exposure. Also, the discovery that an HIV positive person who maintains an undetectable viral load through treatment cannot transmit the virus to partners has been celebrated by many across the HIV prevention world. Whether these advancements are directly related to shifting attitudes, multiple studies have shown sharp decreases in condom use amongst men who have sex with men. These conversations are still very much ongoing in the sexual health and medical communities, as they look for ways to promote education around these conditions.
Of course, it would be impossible to point to just one cause for these increasing transmission rates and new cases across the entire country, and furthermore, it might be impossible to address all of them at once. But the good news is that there are a few very easy ways that you can protect yourself and your partner(s) from becoming part of these statistics this summer and beyond.
How to Stay Safe
Don’t worry, you should still be able to enjoy a fulfilling sex life and still maintain your sexual health. Think about these three steps: 1) communication, 2) safer sex and 3) regular testing and sexual health care. It can be that easy for you and your partners.
Firstly, sexual health can be very personal and unlike other forms of well-being, may not be immediately visible to the naked eye. Rather than assume someone’s sexual history, test results or preferences, it is important to have a transparent, honest and respectful conversation about these things before sexual contact. This way you can acknowledge any risk factors, approach a sexual experience with trust and understanding and avoid triggering or traumatizing your partner(s). If you want some tips on how to start that conversation, check out our post here.
Next, as many STIs can be transmitted through skin to skin contact (especially in the genital area) or contact with bodily fluids like blood and semen, standard latex condoms (formerly called male condoms) are an easy, highly effective way to prevent transmission. This works by operating as a barrier between partners to avoid higher risk contact. Better yet, condoms can be used during all forms of sex, including oral sex, vaginal sex and anal sex, the latter of which can be high risk based on the sensitive internal tissues of the body. When used correctly, condoms can be up to 99% effective at preventing the transmission of STIs and unplanned pregnancy too. Plus, you can always pair condoms with water based and silicone based lube like these here for an even more intense experience! Check out more of our tips and tricks here.
Another way to maintain your sexual health is by asking a health professional about an HPV vaccine, especially for young adults, who account for a large portion of new STI transmissions. Human Papillomavirus is an incredibly common STI, and while it may not manifest in unpleasant symptoms for everyone, it can unfortunately lead to conditions like genital warts and cervical cancer. Luckily, the vaccine can be easy to get through your family medicine office, or a local health center.
Lastly, testing is an easy way to stay in the know about your sexual health. You can usually find testing resources at your local health center or doctor’s office, but if you want to research your local options, check out Planned Parenthood or the National Coalition for Sexual Health. Sexperts recommend testing every three to six months, depending on how sexually active you are. Often, this can be as simple as urine collection, blood draw and a few swabs. Results can usually be returned within a week, and a health professional will discuss your results with you. If you’re experiencing any symptoms, it is always better to consult with a medical professional, as some STIs can advance into very serious long-term concerns if left untreated.
Now that you have the latest information on how to have pleasurable sexual experiences in the summer sun and beyond, while protecting yourself and your partner(s), make sure to check out some of our exciting bundles and condoms on our site!