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What should I do if I test positive for an STI?

May 4, 2021 • read

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What should I do if I test positive for an STI?

Learning that you’ve tested positive for a sexually transmitted infection can be a gut punch. There’s lots of stigma around having an STI, and it can seem like getting one is the end of the world — or at least the end of your sex life. The pleasant upside is that STIs are treatable. Here’s what to do if you test positive for an STI.

What is an STI?

A sexually transmitted infection or disease (STI or STD), is an infection that’s passed through sexual interaction. You can contract an STI through vaginal, anal, or oral sex, but there doesn’t always have to be penetration — you can get certain STIs just by touching the affected area. There are a number of STIs out there including, herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis, AIDS, HPV, and chlamydia.

How do I know if I have an STI?

STIs may cause no symptoms at all, or a multitude of symptoms. Because of this, it’s not possible to self-diagnose an STI. Any changes to the genital areas such as unusual discharge, pain, irritation, or bumps should immediately be assessed by a healthcare professional. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but some symptoms of an STI include:

  • Burning during urination.
  • Pain during intercourse or ejaculation.
  • Unusual vaginal or penile discharge.
  • Rash or lesions on or around the genitals.

Do I have to get tested for an STI?

Yes, STIs can only be diagnosed through laboratory testing. While symptoms can provide clues, they’re not enough to definitively diagnose an STI. Some STIs are asymptomatic, so you’re unlikely to know you’re infected until you get tested. In other cases, symptoms can apply to more than one condition. Pain during urination can happen in both chlamydia and gonorrhea, for example. Or, a symptom may signal something else entirely, like a urinary tract infection. The only way to ensure you get the appropriate treatment is to get tested.

While you might prefer to ignore the symptoms, sexually transmitted infections don’t go away by themselves. Without treatment, many of them can cause further complications, including discomfort, infertility, life-threatening infections, and even some forms of cancer. 

How do I treat a sexually transmitted infection?

While not all STIs are curable, all of them are treatable. Depending on what the diagnosis is, your doctor might suggest antibiotics, topical creams, medications, laser therapy, or cryotherapy (freezing). But, you need a diagnosis to make sure you’re getting the right treatment. Antibiotics prescribed for chlamydia won’t treat genital warts, for example.

Prevention is also a strategy when it comes to protecting yourself against STIs. In Canada, three different vaccines are available to protect against HPV infections, and they can be offered to children as young as nine.

Do I really have to call all my exes?

This is certainly one of the great fears behind contracting an STI. While it’s tempting to keep the information to yourself, you shouldn’t. Both you and any partners you have need treatment for an STI at the same time. Otherwise, you risk passing it back and forth between yourselves.

If you’ve had more than one sexual partner, it’s possible that each partner since your last STI test is infected. They could in turn, be infecting their new sexual partners without realizing it, who could be infecting their new partners, and well, you get the idea.

The good news is that you don’t have to call your former partners yourself. In many cases, the Public Health Agency of Canada will do it for you. A contact tracer from Public Health will ask you about any previous sexual partners within a certain time frame so they can notify them. Don’t worry, they won’t disclose your name or contact info. Your former partners won’t know that they’re being contacted because of you. In cases where it might not be safe for public health to alert a previous sexual partner — like if there’s risk of violence — safety always takes precedence. 

Does my STI mean my partner is cheating on me?

This really depends on what the STI is. Certain infections can go undetected for a long time. Men with HPV may never know that they have it until their female partner develops irregular cells on their cervix. Each sexually transmitted infection has its own set of complexities.  Don’t be afraid to press your doctor to make sure you fully understand the details. Don’t assume your partner has been unfaithful until you’ve discussed it with your doctor.

Can I ever have sex again?

Sexually transmitted infections fall into one of two camps — those that disappear and never come back, and those that are treatable but not curable. Chlamydia and gonorrhea are two of the most common STIs in Canada, and they’re both curable with antibiotics. Herpes and HIV fall into the second category — they can’t be cured. That’s not to say that they aren’t treatable. With the proper medications and precautions, it’s possible to have safe sex with a new partner. It’s crucial to speak with your doctor to understand how to do this safely.

If you test positive for an STI, the best thing to do is to pick your doctor’s brain about the diagnosis. They’ll be able to tell you how to treat it, and how to protect yourself in future sexual encounters. The worst thing you can do is ignore the symptoms of an STI. It can feel embarrassing to talk about STIs with your doctor, but you’re definitely not the first to do it and you won’t be the last.

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