How To Be More Comfortable With Your Sexual Health

Woman lying on her bed after having sex, thinking about her sexual health

According to the latest analysis from the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, STDs rates are at an all-time high. While young people and men who have sex with men were identified as being particularly at risk, we shouldn't overlook the fact that there were large increases for women. For example, the 2015 STD Surveillance Report found that gonorrhea cases increased by 6.8 percent and, astoundingly, the rate of syphilis diagnosis in women increased by over 27 percent in between 2014 and 2015. Even cases of congenital syphilis, where the mother passes it to a child, increased by 6 percent.

"The increased prevalence of undiagnosed and untreated STIs could have long-lasting negative impact on the reproductive health of both men and women," Dr. Cherrell Triplett, OB/GYN at Franciscan St. Francis Medical Centers in Indianapolis and clinical assistant professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine. "Since STIs can be asymptomatic, many people do not know when they have contracted an STI or that they are transmitting it to their partners. For example, three out of four women infected with chlamydia show no symptoms."

It's a lot to take on board, and such a large increase in such a short amount of time. And it means that it's so important we protect ourselves. Your sexual health is your own responsibly— from using a condom to talking to partners to getting regular testing — and while it can be such an easy thing to put to the back of your mind and try not to think about it, you need to confront it directly. I'm sure if you start up a dialogue with your friends you'll see a lot of them have the same concerns — hell, my friends and I have even gone together to get tested.

What's most important is that you put your health first. And I get it, it can be a difficult subject to talk about it and for some reason people, especially women, often feel like they can't stand up for themselves when it comes to their sexual health. Here's what these CDC results mean and how we can be more open about our sexual health.

What are the potential effects of STIs?

We all know the signs of STIs we worry about — itching, redness, flakey skin. But there can be so much more to them than that, and the affects can be devastating. "Most STIs are treatable," Dr. Triplett says. "For women, the long-term effects of untreated chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis vaginalis (Trich) and mycoplasma genitalium (Mgen) can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can cause infertility, ectopic pregnancy, formation of scar tissue inside the fallopian tubes and long-term pelvic/abdominal pain. For men, if an STI is left untreated, it can cause inflammation of the urethra and in some cases sterilization. For both men and women, untreated STIs increase the risk of contracting other STIs, including HIV."

How To Talk To Your Doctor

Firstly, don't delay — just go for it. You need to start the conversation and you may need to make it very clear what you want to be tested for. "Just ask! Don’t assume your doctor is testing you automatically or that they are testing you for all the most common STIs," Dr. Triplett says. "Tests you should talk with your doctor about include those for chlamydia, gonorrhea, HPV, herpes and HIV. Your doctor will speak with you about your risk factors for each."

The other important thing to remember is to be honest. They're doctors — they're there to be spoken to about your health, but they need to know the whole story. "I also want to make it clear that your doctor isn’t judging you (and if you feel they are, you should look for a new one). You should never be afraid to ask your doctor questions, and it is important to be open and honest about your sexual history," Dr. Triplett says. "You don’t have to tell your doctor about your favorite sexual position, but you do need to tell them if you have engaged in unprotected anal, oral and/or vaginal sex, or if you are experiencing any symptoms (including unusual odors or discharge). By having an honest conversation, you will help your doctor make more informed decisions about your care."

How To Talk To Your Partner

What the CDC report shows is you need to protect yourself, and one of the best ways to do that is by talking to a new partner before you have sex. "It may be an uncomfortable conversation, but it’s imperative to talk about STIs with any new partner before engaging with them," Dr. Triplett says. "Questions can include: 1) Have you ever had unprotected sex? 2) Have you ever been tested for STIs? If so, when were you last tested and what were the results? 3) Which STIs were you tested for? Not tested for? 4) How many sexual partners have you had since your last round of testing? 5) What were the STI statuses of those partners?"

If you find out you have an STI you need to tell any partners who may be affected. It's your responsibility. But the more we talk about sexual health and feel comfortable with the topic, the less difficult these conversations will become. We need to keep the conversation going and start removing the stigma and, most importantly, we need to stay safe.

Images: Andrew Zaeh for Bustle