We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. This week’s topic: incurable sexually transmitted diseases.
Q: I’m not gonna lie, STDs freak me out. Not the STDs that are curable, because whatever — just go to the doctor to get your pills or shot, and you’re back on the market. I mean the ones that you get and then have to live with forever. I mean no judgment on anyone who has one, but having to tell all my potential boyfriends for the rest of my life, that’s pretty intense. The thing is, I’m not actually sure which STDs are incurable. What are they, and how bad are they?
A: That’s a really good question. There are indeed some STDs that are curable, as in you can have them, take some medicine, and then not have them anymore. All the other STDs are incurable but treatable, which means that while you will have them in your body forever (or at least until scientists figure out a cure) your symptoms can be managed. Treatment can also help with lowering the chances a certain STD will get transmitted from you to someone else, so while that doesn’t erase the conversation you should have with any potential sexual partners disclosing your status, it can temper it a ton — because you will be able to say that you are taking something to protect them.
OK, that’s all well and good, but what are the STDs you can't cure, and that if you get them, will be a part of you for life?
1. Herpes Simplex
Herpes is a untreatable but manageable skin condition that gets into and lives in your nerves. It’s super prevalent: nearly everyone has the virus by the end of their lives. There are two types — the more common HSV-1 usually lives in or around your mouth (and is usually called cold sores), while HSV-2 prefers your genital region. However, each can live in the other place as well. You can have the herpes virus inside you and not even know it (it’s estimated that 20 to 30 percent of people who have herpes are unaware), but if you do get symptoms, they will be in the form of tiny, fluid-filled blisters that burst and leave behind painful ulcers that take one to three weeks to heal. Luckily, this only happens occasionally.
Also luckily, you can take daily medication to suppress herpes symptoms. Taking this suppressive antiviral medication can reduce outbreaks by up to 80 percent, and in many people suppresses outbreaks altogether. Other people only take meds when they feel an outbreak coming on, which is usually preceded by feelings of tingling, burning, itching, or pain. Suppressive medications have been shown to diminish the risk of spreading the virus to other humans. So while you’re not cured, if you’re taking your medication as your doctor prescribes, you’re pretty close to living herpes-blister-free and protecting your loved ones.
HIV is another of the currently incurable STDs, although it is the one with the most money being thrown at research for a cure. This virus attacks your immune system, making it too weak to fight off other sick-making things that may enter your body. The result can be devastating, as evidenced by the horrific death toll, which is currently around 35 million worldwide since the epidemic began in the 1980s.
Luckily, with current antiviral medication regimens, people are living with HIV for much longer. And even better, a brand-new study that came out this year found that people who take their medication as prescribed to lower the amount of viral copies in their system had no instances of passing along HIV to their partners, even when they weren’t using condoms. So while this isn’t a cure, it’s definitely treatment at its most useful.
3. Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
HPV is also called genital warts, although only a few of the 40-ish strains actually cause warts. Some of the other strains are potentially cancer-causing, and the rest kinda just hitch a ride in your body. Depending on how old you are, you may have already gotten the vaccine against HPV — this only covers you against the highest risk strains for cancer and warts. So regardless, chances are at some point in your life, you’ll get HPV in your body. There are some things you can do to manage your symptoms. These include some medical procedures like freezing off the warts, changing what you eat, taking herbs, and minimizing your stress. But nope, there’s no medical cure.
I say “medical” because you do have a cure — you! Your immune system, more specifically. Most times, your body clears the HPV infection all on its own. So just because you test positive for HPV or get warts, doesn’t mean you’ll have it forever. In fact, the average life of an HPV infection is between four and twenty months, and most people kick it within two years. HPV progresses to pre-cancer in the rare instance when your body is unable to clear a high-risk cancer strain for a long time. This leads your infected cells to turn abnormal.
4. Hepatitis A & B
Hepatitis is a bloodborne virus that messes with your liver. There are three types: A, B, and C. If you get one of these, it can severely impair your liver function, leading to illness and even death. For Hepatitis A and B, there is no cure. However, there is a vaccine for these two types — and, as with HPV, your body usually clears both Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B within a few months. However, some people do end up with chronic Hepatitis B, which means their body didn’t get rid of it within six months. For folks with chronic Hepatitis B infection, there are medications that can slow down the damage the virus does to your liver.
Until recently, Hepatitis C was another incurable STD — and then researchers developed a cure. That’s right, pretty much everyone with Hepatitis C can now be cured. See? There’s hope!
Unfortunately, gonorrhea, a previously totally curable STD, is becoming resistant to medication. So if you end up with gonorrhea and try to get it treated, it might work — and it might not.
Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection. Not everyone who has it gets symptoms, but if you do, they will include yellow vaginal discharge and vaginal itching, burning, or redness. You can also experience pain when peeing or having sex. If this is happening to you, you should still go to your doctor to get antibiotics. However, this bacteria keeps gaining resistance to more and more antibiotic types. Until researchers figure out a solution to this, we will probably start using antimicrobials to manage the symptoms of gonorrheal infection.
The Bottom Line
No one likes living with an incurable disease of any kind. However, the good news is that all the STDs that are currently incurable are pretty manageable with medication and/or relatively doable lifestyle changes. Medicine is also progressing so rapidly that I hope that my response here totally dates this article in the near future because we’ve come up with even more cures for more sexually transmitted diseases!
Either way, the bottom line is that no STD should ruin your life. They are hitching a ride on your gorgeous body and they better recognize who is in charge. So don't freak out — just get tested regularly and manage your health!