Talking about sexual health is an uncomfortable topic for most people — it’s highly personal, and it can be awkward. At Women’s Healthcare of Morgantown, we strive to make these conversations easier by fostering a nonjudgemental and private environment. We find our patients are often embarrassed to talk candidly about their sexual health, especially teens.
By reassuring our patients of their privacy and keeping conversations focused on the facts, we’re able to give our patients top-quality care. We also notice that most of our patients start to feel much more comfortable after they see that their care provider truly cares about their health and wellbeing.
Being prepared for your appointment and the types of questions you’ll be asked can help you feel more confident when you arrive. And if you’re a parent, we want to help you talk to your teen and ensure they get the medical care they need.
In this blog, we tell you everything you need to know about the difference between STIs and STDs, how to stay safe and how to talk to teens. But first, we want to make sure you know and understand your privacy rights.
YOUR RIGHTS TO PRIVACY
At Women’s Healthcare of Morgantown, we follow the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. HIPAA is a federal privacy law that permits healthcare providers to give patients a choice in who, if anyone, has access to their health information.
HIPAA AND MINORS
HIPAA laws are different for minors under the age of 18. Parents do have access to their child’s medical records — and a healthcare provider can legally share sensitive information about a minor patient with their parent.
Parents can consent to their child and healthcare provider having a confidential relationship. Minors also need to know that they do not need their parent’s consent to seek medical care.
As a parent, it can be difficult to decide if you’ll allow your child to have confidential visits with a healthcare provider. You want to know that they’re okay, and you want to know what their test results are. But remember, this isn’t a cough or cold — this is their sexual health. Sometimes, teens are more honest when they know they have privacy — which ultimately gets them the care they need.
Please discuss this with your care provider. It’s a personal decision — and we understand that it can be a difficult one to make.
STIs & STDs — WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
The terms STI and STD are often used synonymously, but there are differences between the two.
STIs vs. STDs
STI stands for Sexually Transmitted Infection — the virus or bacteria is present in the body, but the infection has not yet developed into a disease (and it may never). A good example is the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) — a women can test positive for HPV, meaning she has an STI. For most people, this is as far as the HPV virus goes. In cases where the HPV virus causes cervical cancer, the HPV has become a Sexually Transmitted Disease — because cancer is a disease. Disease is generally defined as the disruption of normal body function or structure.
So, why are there two terms?
Some people feel that there is a less negative stigma around the term STI. In today’s health classroom, you’ll most likely hear the term STI, whereas ten years ago, the teacher would have been discussing STDs.
Which STIs/STDs Are Most Common?
In the United States, Genital Human Papillomavirus (HPV), Chlamydia, Trichomoniasis, Gonorrhea and Genital Herpes are the most common STIs/STDs. Syphilis and HIV are much less common, but are still diagnosed on occasion.
How can STIs/STDs be prevented?
Oral, IUD, injected and implanted birth control methods do not prevent STIs/STDs. Using a condom every time you have sex is important — make sure that the condom is used correctly and for the duration of the sex act.
It is also advised that you use a dental dam when engaging in oral sex. Ultimately, avoiding sexual activity is the only way to completely prevent STIs/STDs.
WHEN SHOULD YOU GET TESTED?
Getting tested for STIs/STDs should always be part of an annual exam, but depending on your provider, you may have to request it. However, there are circumstances that may mean you should get a test done in addition to testing at your annual exam.
If you have had unprotected sex or have a new sexual partner, getting tested can protect your long-term health. The same applies if you find out a current sexual partner has an STI/STD. It’s not just to protect you, but to protect those you are sexually active with.
Regardless of circumstance, you should always get tested for STIs/STDs if you think you are experiencing symptoms.
- Bumps or sores around your genitals, buttocks or thighs
- Burning and discomfort during urination and/or frequent urination
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- Swelling, pain, irritation or itching around the genitals, including the anus
- General fatigue, body aches, fever or swollen glands — much like having the flu
Remember, not all STIs/STDs present physical symptoms — which is why requesting testing at your annual exam is so crucial.
GETTING TESTED — WHAT TO EXPECT
Testing is minimally invasive and is generally very quick. It’s virtually painless, and your healthcare provider tests people every day. At your appointment, you nurse or doctor will ask you about your sexual history, including:
- If you’re having symptoms
- The number of sexual partners you’ve had
- The types of sex you’ve engaged in (oral, vaginal, anal)
- If you use protection, like dental dams and condoms
- If you or any of your sexual partners have had an STD before
- Other risk behaviors that increase the chances of infection, like sharing needles
While it can be uncomfortable, being honest is important — your answers will help your healthcare provider determine which tests you need.
So, what type of tests may you receive? Ultimately, it depends on your sexual history; however, common STI/STD tests include:
- Urine Test — peeing into a cup
- Blood Test — finger prick or blood draw from your arm
- Physical Exam — your provider will look at your genital area to see if there are abnormalities
- Cheek Swab — the inside of your cheek will be swabbed to test for HIV
- Swabbing — samples of cells or discharge are taken from the genital area, anus or throat
- Testing Sores — fluid or pus from blisters or sores may be taken using a swab
You can’t really prepare for your STI/STD screening — just be prepared to be honest with your healthcare provider and remember that they are there to help you, not judge you. The majority of STIs are treatable with medication, and even those that aren’t, can be managed.
WHAT IF I HAVE AN STI/STD?
If you have a positive test result, the important thing is to ask questions — make sure you know exactly what you have, how it can be treated or managed and what that means for your future.
You will need to tell your partner if you have an STI/STD, and depending on what you are diagnosed with, it’s recommended you tell former partners too — your healthcare provider will help you prepare for these conversations. In some states, it’s actually law that you tell partners about certain STIs/STDs.
Dealing with an STI/STD diagnosis can be challenging and emotional. If you feel alone, reach out to a trusted friend. Or if you feel like you can’t tell anybody, we recommend finding a counselor to talk things through. It’s important you take care of your mental health and your physical health.
TALKING TO YOUR TEEN
Knowing your teenager is sexually active can be hard for a parent. You want them to be safe and protected, while making their own decisions and becoming an individual.
The average American male loses their virginity at 16.9 years old, and the average age for American women is 17.2 years old. It’s important to note that sexual activity other than intercourse can begin at an earlier age — and that STIs/STDs aren’t spread solely by vaginal or anal intercourse.
We encourage parents to talk to their teens at an early age to start the conversation. Not talking about sex can create a taboo that makes teens feel guilty about sexual activity or feel like they can’t talk to their parents when issues arise.
The American Virgin: First-Time Sex Trends of U.S. Males and Females, a study by Superdrug, found that one in four people surveyed said their parents never talked to them about sex. The study found a similar amount of people didn’t use a contraceptive the first time they had sex. While there are multiple factors involved, the likelihood of a correlation between these two findings is high.
Teens need to know the importance of using protection when having sex. Additionally, they need to understand the importance of consent. 27% of teens reported that consent was not covered in their sex ed class. The overall consensus of the study is that schools aren’t being comprehensive when teaching sex education, meaning that parents are the only other source of reliable information.
For those with strong religious affiliations, we do believe that you can promote abstinence in your household while ensuring your teen also understands consent and protection. If you’re feeling stuck about where to start with these difficult conversations, please ask a member of our staff for quality resources to help you get started — your teenager’s health is simply too important to not talk about.
HOW WE CAN HELP
At Women’s Healthcare of Morgantown, we value your privacy and respect you as an individual. We understand the delicate nature of discussing sexual health and strive to create an environment in which you feel comfortable talking openly with your provider.
We always provide top-quality care to our patients and take great pride in the experience, education and integrity or our caregivers. Your family is also incredibly important to us — if you’re unsure about how to talk to your teen or think your teen should be seen for an exam, we can help you